Trotting Christian Hackenberg out for his first college start in an NFL stadium was one thing. Bill O’Brien then prepared his freshman quarterback to come out after the game and face the media.
“It’s kinda like shaving your head with a cheese grater, I told him,” O’Brien said, half-jokingly.
But whether it’s having Hackenberg face elaborate blitzes during a game or face cameras and microphones after it — both rare situations for a true freshman at Penn State — the key word for O’Brien is trust.
The Penn State coach has already has a tremendous amount of faith in the 18-year-old from Virginia, and it’s showing after just a month of practices and one game.
“It was great for them to have that confidence in me,” Hackenberg said. “It always helps that the staff’s behind you and knows what you can do. And also to have the team understand that.”
There was no concerted effort to ease him into things when Hackenberg took the field against Syracuse over the weekend. Starting without suspended top target Allen Robinson, O’Brien’s opening drive script called for Hackenberg to run his no-huddle “NASCAR” package.
O’Brien knew even midway through training camp that he could trust Hackenberg to be able to switch paces on offense when called upon. He was adamant that it wouldn’t be an issue.
“Absolutely no challenge with changing the tempo with a young quarterback, especially one that’s smart,” O’Brien said. “Made some mistakes, sure, but (he’s) done a really nice job of operating the offense.”
Teammates, of course, knew all about Hackenberg’s accolades in high school and how ESPN named him the country’s top pro-style quarterback recruit in this past signing class.
It takes a lot more than that, however, to lead an offense. That started in June, when he arrived in Happy Valley.
“Once he got on campus and you had conversations with him, you find out he’s very poised and very confident,” senior tackle Garry Gilliam said. “He’s a pretty mature kid. He handled himself well on the road in an NFL stadium for his first away game.
“We’re looking forward to big things out of him. He’s a great guy.”
From there, the big hurdle was picking up O’Brien’s complex playbook during preseason practices.
Wide receiver Matt Zanellato said that after a few weeks, it became obvious that Hackenberg’s confidence was beginning to take off.
“It’s a complete NFL offense,” Zanellato said. “Before we got into training camp, he had a sheet with him during (informal workouts) to call plays. I’m sure we’ll see real big strides in him as the season progresses.
“Matt McGloin was a fifth-year senior last year and he got more and more confident as the season went on. I’m sure we’ll see that from Hackenberg as the season goes on. He’ll get even more and more comfortable in the scheme.”
But finding that initial comfort level in the opener wasn’t going to be easy. Especially with Robinson benched for the first half.
That handicap kept the Nittany Lions’ passing game looking short for much of the first half. Hackenberg opened 11-for-15 in the opening 30 minutes but had just 69 yards passing. His deepest throw, intended for tight end Kyle Carter, was intercepted.
Hackenberg settled down in the second half, going 11-for-16 for 209 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Certainly Robinson’s return was a huge part of that, but so was just getting his first game experience.
“As a freshman coming in, the first snap is always going to be big (to get through),” Hackenberg said. “Once I got that out of the way and started getting a few completions under my belt, and the team started moving the ball, I definitely felt more comfortable.”
To further that, Hackenberg simply needs to be exposed to more and more situations. His second interception against the Orange came on a zone blitz where a defensive end dropped back into coverage as linebackers brought the pressure from the outside.
“I’m not sure Christian has ever even seen that before in a live game,” O’Brien said with a bit of a laugh.
It was a mistake, and a very costly one as the Orange scored on the next play to pull within six late in the fourth quarter.
It was also a sign that O’Brien isn’t going to play it safe just because his quarterback is a few months removed from his prom.
“He’s got good poise, he’s a smart guy,” O’Brien said. “Like I said after the game, it’s one game and he needs to make improvement. We spent a lot of time in the film room (Monday) showing these guys the tape and I personally spent a lot of time with Christian, showing him the mistakes that he made and where he’s got to improve week to week.
“He’s got a great demeanor, great poise. Smart guy. Fun to coach. And he’ll improve.”