STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien isn't one to shower praise upon his players. The Penn State head coach is more likely to punt on fourth-and-inches than to lob compliments at a standout performer.
He tends to diffuse praise throughout the team, reiterating that wins don't come from individuals. But that exercise has become a bit trickier lately with his true freshman quarterback, whom he's been asked about at every opportunity.
Is he surprised Christian Hackenberg is completing 71 percent of his passes? "I expect him to complete every pass," O'Brien said flippantly. What about a performance that's seen him win two Big Ten freshman of the week awards and rank third in the conference with 851 passing yards? "I'd give 'em a 'B,'" O'Brien said.
One wonders what it might take for an "A" on the O'Brien grading scale. But the coach is just trying to keep the aw-shucks kid from Virginia humble. Fans had anointed Hackenberg the quarterback of the future, the savior of the offense, before he could attend a senior prom. He was a household name in the Keystone State a year before he ever slid on his No. 14 jersey.
And he has still met lofty expectations and become a staple of the O'Brien press conference by coming a long way in just three short weeks. Against Syracuse in the season opener, O'Brien called run plays on third-and-long and steered his quarterback into short, high-percentage passes. In Week 2, against Eastern Michigan, Hackenberg aired out the ball more following his first quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown. O'Brien chose to pass on eight straight third downs.
And, in Week 3, against Central Florida? Hackenberg ran the NASCAR no-huddle offense, checked down on some plays, didn't commit a turnover and nearly led a comeback in PSU's 34-31 loss. He finished with a QBR of 82.9; a perfect score is 100.
"There's definitely not as much anxiety," Hackenberg said Wednesday afternoon. "I've experienced pretty much everything that I could on the field at this level so, really, it just comes down to preparation and continuing to get better each week."
Ask Hackenberg's teammates about his evolution, and a theme will clearly emerge. His offensive linemen, Ty Howle and Adam Gress, used the term "confident" repeatedly, more often than they used the term "freshman." Hackenberg's leadership is even apparent on the other side of the ball.
"He's starting to help other guys come along and become a leader," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He was getting fired up on the sideline and getting guys going. That was comforting to see from a quarterback, especially a young quarterback."
Hackenberg shared Wednesday that his teammates' respect wasn't handed to him just because he's the kid under center. When he enrolled in June, he knew he had something to prove in the weight room. When he stepped outside, alongside his receivers, he knew had something to prove during drills.
But he tried to build off every experience. As the respect started to come, he became more vocal. As he became more vocal, more teammates started to look upon him as a leader. After Zach Zwinak's fourth-quarter fumble Saturday, for example, Hackenberg turned to him and told the redshirt junior to keep his head up and that they'll keep fighting.
And when talking about Allen Robinson, the Big Ten receiver of the year and a man two years his senior, the 18-year-old quarterback referred to him as "kid." As in, "Kid's got a 38-inch vert, so I just gave him a shot."
Hackenberg is a calm and poised quarterback -- "which is great for me," O'Brien added, "because I'm not a calm guy" -- and has used each week as another step toward success.
O'Brien seems to dangle perfection in front of Hackenberg like a carrot on a stick. He's played well but, O'Brien's sure to add, he's making about six or seven key mistakes every game. The true freshman insists he knows what he's doing wrong and, behind the respect of his team, he's hoping there's nowhere to go but up.
Who knows? At this pace, maybe -- by the end of the year -- O'Brien might even give him an A.