Hackenberg will be under the gun

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

In any discussion of Christian Hackenberg - his personality, his skills as a quarterback, his future at Penn State and beyond - Micky Sullivan acknowledges his prejudice at the start.

If there's a benefit of the doubt to be given, Sullivan is going to give it to Hackenberg, and he makes no apologies for it. He coached Hackenberg at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. He plays golf with him in the spring and summer. He traveled down to St. Petersburg, Fla., in January 2013 when Hackenberg played in the Under Armour All-American Game. There, Sullivan sized up the 79 other seniors who would play in the game, and he came to the same conclusion then that he comes to now, as he looks over the Nittany Lions' roster and considers how Hackenberg will fare this season under coach James Franklin and Franklin's staff.

"My thing is, and I'm not putting anybody down, but I don't think there's anybody in that building who's coached a kid as good as Christian Hackenberg," Sullivan said in a recent phone interview. "There were some pretty good guys there in St. Pete, OK? He was the best one in the building. No questions asked - he was the best one in the building."

Even Franklin himself would admit that, over his three seasons at Vanderbilt's head coach, he didn't have a quarterback who could match Hackenberg's size, skill, and style of play. As a freshman last season, Hackenberg, who is 6-foot-4 and 234 pounds, passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, offering a glimpse of the glory that the program has expected of him since he honored his committment to Bill O'Brien despite the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the subsequent NCAA sanctions.

"He went to Penn State in a pressure cooker," Sullivan said. "He was going to be the savior of Penn State. And he did what was advertised. Christian is that guy. He was that guy in high school.

"What he does doesn't always surprise me. It sometimes surprises me that it's happening this early in his career as far as his leadership, his command of dealing with the media, and all the things go along with being the face of Penn State or at least the face of Penn State football."

But O'Brien and his preference for a strapping, prototypical quarterback are gone, off to the Houston Texans, and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Franklin's first season will be how he coaches Hackenberg - and how he plans to keep him from getting killed. Remember: Penn State lost three starters from last year's offensive line to graduation and is without another, senior guard Miles Dieffenbach, indefinitely because of a torn knee ligament, and this season's prospective unit is among the most inexperienced in the nation.

So Franklin's mission goes beyond whether he can shape the contours of his pro-style offensive system to fit Hackenberg and whether Hackenberg, in turn, can adjust. Earlier this month, Franklin hinted that he and his coaches have to incorporate more quick reads and throws into the offense and lean on the running game more just to protect Hackenberg, but "it's not like we are going to be running quarterback powers and read options and things like that with him," he said.

That's a smart limitation to put on Hackenberg. The read option might open him to more frequent and more destructive hits, and it doesn't exactly play to his strengths.

"That's not why you recruit Christian Hackenberg," Sullivan said. "If you wanted somebody to run the read option, you're not going to recruit him. Now, he can run it, but you're recruiting him because the guy's a gunslinger. He can make all the throws, and he's willing to try to stick it in there when you need it stuck in there. He did that in high school. When you do that, you've got to live with, 'Man, why did you make that throw?' I'd sit with him and say, 'Son, show me why you made that throw.' And when he shows you what he saw, it's like, 'OK, you're right. But next time, you know . . .'

"That's Christian. You take that away from him, he's not Christian Hackenberg, I don't think. You have to let him make some choices and be a leader and do that. If he does that, he's really, really good, and he showed that last year."

Of course, James Franklin didn't recruit Hackenberg, but that's irrelevant now. It's his charge to develop him into the centerpiece of Penn State's Lazarus project, into the kind of quarterback that the program hasn't had in a generation.

Micky Sullivan knows and loves Christian Hackenberg and could never praise him enough, but that doesn't make him wrong. This is a kid with the potential to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, to be the best one in any building he enters, so long as he survives a sophomore season spent running for his life.