It seems like eons ago, but it's been only about 12 months since Christian Hackenberg, less than three months after his high school graduation, stood on the grand stage at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., as Penn State's starting quarterback in the team's season opener.
Hackenberg got through it by completing 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards in his debut, a 23-17 win by the Nittany Lions over Syracuse. Now, for the 2014 opener against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, it's a bigger, more mature, and more confident Hackenberg who will lead the Lions offense onto the field Saturday at Croke Park.
"It was a little bit different feeling last year to this year," Hackenberg said Tuesday on a conference call. "But I feel just a total understanding of the game, defenses, confidence within our scheme. I think that's definitely a big difference from last year to this year.
"I think I've improved my fundamentals a little bit, my drops, my release. I've tweaked things to become more accurate and ultimately help this team in any way I can. I feel there's a great opportunity ahead of us, and we're all going to take advantage of it."
Hackenberg, who was elected one of the team's seven captains, will have experienced running backs in seniors Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. But only two starters on the offensive line have seen any action there in a college game, and the wide receivers are young.
But the 6-foot-4, 235-pound sophomore likes how the team has developed.
"I think [the offensive linemen] have experience under their belt," he said. "They had a couple of scrimmages. You can sort of see that it's starting to click for them. You can see it in the film and on the field. There's still always a lot of work to do for all of us at all positions, but they've definitely come a long way."
The wide receivers lost much production with Allen Robinson's moving on to the NFL. Judging from the depth chart released Tuesday, three freshmen - redshirt DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, and Saeed Blacknall - should see plenty of time.
"I think the younger guys have showed that they're eager to work, and they're eager to make plays for us," Hackenberg said. "I think that's a key part of their development, especially being as young as they are."
Hackenberg also worked in camp with two true freshmen who will back him up at quarterback - Trace McSorley and Michael O'Connor, named No. 2 and No. 3 on the depth chart.
"They're both great dudes," he said. "They're guys that I love to work with, and they bring specific tools to the table."