Penn State Nittany Lions: Kevin Newsome

Christian HackenbergAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg, the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, will start the opener at Penn State.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Four months ago, Christian Hackenberg was kicking up sand near the dugout as part of the Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy baseball team.

He was finding free time, between baseball and classwork, to break out flash cards and study the Penn State playbook -- names of plays and formations on one side and blank on the other, so he could scribble what they looked like. He'd catch himself daydreaming about running through that Beaver Stadium tunnel and launching touchdown passes behind a cheering crowd.

Now? All that studying, dreaming and summer training has culminated in what he's waited to achieve since Feb. 29, 2012, the day he committed to the Nittany Lions: According to sources, he is the starting quarterback at Penn State.

Hackenberg's father had initially weighed the value of a redshirt, but that was before the senior high school season of ESPN's top-rated passer. And a lot has changed in Happy Valley since then. Sophomore Steven Bench, who some expected to be a short-term Band-Aid, transferred to South Florida upon learning he wouldn't receive first-team reps in the preseason. Then juco quarterback Tyler Ferguson missed about a month of voluntary workouts for personal reasons.

Ferguson still held the edge early in camp. But Hackenberg, perhaps the biggest-name quarterback to ever sign a Penn State letter of intent, quickly caught up and impressed the coaching staff. A week into camp, head coach Bill O'Brien said the race became "very even." Less than three weeks later, Hackenberg pulled ahead. He'll be the second PSU true freshman in the last 100 years to be the starting quarterback.

"Christian has come in here and really done a nice job," O'Brien said early on at camp. "He's attentive. He must be staying up late at night studying the playbook because he's come from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3 and improved. And he asks great questions in the meetings."

Hackenberg's strong arm dazzled onlookers at last year's Elite 11 and the Under Armour All-America Game, and the baby-faced quarterback already shows more ability to stretch the field than his predecessor, Matt McGloin. During part of an open practice two weeks ago, some reporters muttered "woah" when Hackenberg zipped a pass against his body to the opposite sideline -- right at the receiver's numbers.

Between his arm, accuracy and size -- he is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds -- Hackenberg's potential and raw ability have never really come into question. Talent is oozing from the aw-shucks kid whose father attended high school in Pennsylvania.

Recruiting analysts, opposing players, college coaches and former quarterbacks have thrown almost as much praise Hackenberg's way as they did to O'Brien after an emotional, 8-4 first season. Said Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer: "Christian is a kid you build a program around."

But potential and high accolades don't always translate to success -- at least not immediately. Former No. 1-rated QB Matt Stafford struggled as a freshman at Georgia and threw 13 interceptions and seven touchdowns. Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen threw seven scores to six interceptions. USC's Matt Barkley had a 15:14 ratio of TDs to interceptions in his first season. ESPN rated each the No. 1 quarterback in his respective class, and all are in the NFL.

So what does that mean for Hackenberg? That future greatness does not necessarily equate to immediate success. Opposing high school coaches have said Hackenberg struggled diagnosing disguised coverages, and the schemes and talent of Big Ten defenses will obviously lie in stark contrast to those Hackenberg saw in high school.

McGloin didn't have the strongest arm but he was a great decision-maker, throwing 24 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2012. Hackenberg is not expected to top those numbers this year, but he is expected to show promise.

The Nittany Lions have had their fair share of busts and underachieving quarterbacks over the years -- Rob Bolden, Paul Jones, Anthony Morelli and Kevin Newsome, to name a few -- but this Lions group also has something different nowadays, namely O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.

O'Brien molded McGloin, a former walk-on, into a player the Big Ten blog thought deserved consideration for the Davey O'Brien Award. What can he do with the best true freshman quarterback prospect in the nation, one who turned down teams such as Alabama, Florida and Georgia?

We'll start to see at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Penn State Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
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Experts, fans and pundits will analyze every angle of the 2013 recruiting class in the coming weeks, but there will be no certainties there. There never are in recruiting.

For every elite prospect who falls short, there's an Allen Robinson -- an under-the-radar, two-star prospect who exceeds all expectations. The only true way to gauge the success of a recruiting class is in hindsight, by simply waiting.

So, as part of a RecruitingNation-wide series, NittanyNation took a closer look at PSU's Class of 2009. Some fifth-year seniors will have one more chance to show what they have on the field next fall. But, at this point, it's pretty safe to judge whether the class was a bust or not.


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Top Penn State recruiting misses 

January, 22, 2013
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Obviously, coaches hope every elite recruit they reel in becomes a star player and household name. But recruiting doesn't work like that.

For every hit, there's a miss. So, NittanyNation decided to take a look at five big-name recruits -- from the 2006 class and on -- that never were. Here they are:


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QB Paul Jones announces transfer

November, 12, 2012
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Bill O'BrienMatthew O'Haren/Icon SMIPaul Jones is the fourth PSU quarterback to transfer in four years.

Quarterback Paul Jones, who left the Penn State football team for personal reasons in September, announced on Twitter he planned to transfer to FCS school Robert Morris.

Colonials spokesman Spencer Kowitz acknowledged the university was recruiting Jones but said his transfer was not yet official. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jones expressed reservations early in the season when Bill O'Brien demoted him to the third string and moved his primary position to tight end. Jones told the media he moved past the switch but ultimately left the team a few weeks later.

Robert Morris, which is about 12 miles from Jones' Sto-Rox High School, is 4-6 this season. Its starting quarterback, Jeff Sinclair, will graduate -- so Jones would be expected to compete for the starting job.

Jones, a redshirt sophomore, leaves Penn State without attempting a single pass. Academic issues kept him on the sideline his first two seasons, and he leaves with one career catch for seven yards and one run for minus-7 yards.

He enrolled in Penn State as a high-end three-star quarterback whom ESPN ranked No. 33 at this position. He's the fourth Penn State quarterback to transfer in four years, following Pat Devlin, Kevin Newsome and Rob Bolden.

PSU offense improves despite setbacks

September, 26, 2012
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Matt McGloin chuckled when asked whether this offense was an improvement over last year.

He didn't point out his conference-leading nine touchdown passes or argue how the Nittany Lions are spending more time in opponent territory than in the locker room. No, he just stifled a laugh.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMatt McGloin believes this season's offense is markedly better than last season's.
"What kind of question is that, man? You can't compare the two," he said in a light-hearted prodding Wednesday. "It's different philosophies. All I'm saying is that I'm happy to be in the offense this year."

Despite four new starters on the offensive line, starting four different tailbacks in four weeks and watching three wideouts leave since the spring, this offense has transformed from a run-up-the-middle slumber party to one where adjectives such as "exciting" and "high-powered" are no longer used ironically.

Former quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno struggled building offensive foundations with four- and-five star talent (Kevin Newsome, Paul Jones, Rob Bolden). But Bill O'Brien and Charlie Fisher have molded an above-average Big Ten quarterback out of a former walk-on.

Penn State's leading receiver, Allen Robinson, was a third-string afterthought last season. Zach Zwinak was the third-string fullback. Against Temple, the two led the team in rushing and receiving.

O'Brien has taken a patchwork offense and stitched it into something that's attracted the top high school offensive talent in the country.

"I'm looking forward to working with that system," said ESPN's No. 1-rated passer, Christian Hackenberg (Fork Union, Va./Fork Union).

McGloin boasts one more yard passing right now than USC's Matt Barkley. No one is saying McGloin's the better signal-caller, but no one thought he'd be ahead of Barkley at this point either. Penn State's offense still has a long way to go before it can call itself one of the best in the Big Ten, but the fact it somehow seems improved is a feat in itself.

The Lions averaged less than 20 points a game last season with stars like Silas Redd, Justin Brown and Derek Moye. Through four games -- against three teams that played in bowls last season -- Penn State's put up an average of 22 points on the scoreboard and left a lot more points on the field.

Against Temple, Penn State's first eight drives entered opponent territory. Against Virginia, the Lions drove close enough to attempt five field goals.

They've been close to scoring, breaking out of mediocrity, and they're getting closer every game.

So, near the end of McGloin's teleconference call Wednesday afternoon, the quarterback wasn't in the mood to discuss whether this offense was better. He admitted the passing game struggled in the past and labeled it "successful" this season ... but he wasn't answering that question.

"Come on, dude, asking stuff like that," he said with a laugh. "All right, we're done here."

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