Hackenberg preparing for QB competition

March, 19, 2013
3/19/13
11:00
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Christian Hackenberg knows he has a lot of learning to do before he can call himself the top quarterback at Penn State -- so he said he's taking every opportunity he can to brush up on the playbook.

ESPN's No. 1-rated passer will break out flash cards during study halls and lulls during school. His father will sit across from him at the dining room table in late afternoons and quiz him about defenses. And he'll curl up on his bed in the evening and familiarize himself with the packet that PSU coach Bill O'Brien provided him.

"I'm putting in as much time as I can," Hackenberg said. "If I have a minute where I'm not hanging out, whenever I have some free time, I'll study it. I couldn't give you an exact amount. Whenever I get free time, I think about it."

A lot of pressure has been piled upon the shoulders of the 18-year-old high-schooler. He's the headline of Penn State's top-25 recruiting class, a top prospect who's almost expected to carry this team into a new era predicated on passing. Some assume, if he doesn't start this season, he's a lock to start the next.

He won't arrive on campus until June, but O'Brien said Monday afternoon that the incoming freshman -- ranked as the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2013 class -- will still compete for the starting job this season. Hackenberg said he figured as much last year.

He was well-aware of the quarterback situation, and he said O'Brien intimated a "little while back" that he would compete for the opening-day start. But Hackenberg brushed aside any talk of nervousness or intimidation after a baseball practice Monday evening.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comChristian Hackenberg is studying the Penn State playbook so he can hit the ground running when he arrives in June.
"I'm really embracing the opportunity," he said. "I'm ready to go up there and compete.

"I think I'm more excited. It's really being excited, focused -- and a little bitter not being able to be up there."

Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy doesn't allow students to graduate early, so Hackenberg didn't have the option to enroll in January. Instead, he's taken it upon himself to learn as much as he can until the snow is replaced with summer.

He said he learns best through repetition, so he'll have one-sided index cards that simply have the name of a formation on them. On the other side, he'll try to draw out what it looks like with the players and positioning. The process is a little more difficult than he expected, but he said he has a lot of people he can turn to if he has any questions -- even if some of those people are his main competition.

"I talk to Tyler [Ferguson] every once in a while and sort of go over everything," he said. "Having those guys there helps a lot, so I'll shoot them a text whenever I have a question."

The four-star signal-caller said learning Penn State's playbook is somewhat similar to preparing for the Under-Armour Game because he was forced to cram a lot of information into a short period of time. That's helped prepare him a bit, but it remains challenging.

"A lot of guys will tell you it's a big jump, and it is," he said. "You got to be able to know everything and translate it. That's the biggest adjustment to me. It's a totally different language.

"The terminology is different, and there's a lot more formations. And you can't just understand the offense; you have to understand defenses. It's understanding concepts and applying them to different situations."

ESPN's coach of the year sent the 6-foot-4 signal-caller two parts of the playbook. Hackenberg's trying to digest both of those parts, but he's not sure how many O'Brien has left.

But, for now, he's just trying to focus on the short-term payoffs -- learning PSU's formations, studying the terminology and reading defenses -- so he might be able to suit up Aug. 31 for the season opener. His mind wanders from time to time about playing in front of a packed blue-and-white crowd, but he doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself.

"I mean, I have thought about it a lot. And that'll be cool, it's a lot of fun," he said. "But, when it comes down to it, when I'm there, I'm just going to focus on what I need to do."

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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