When Christian Hackenberg stepped onto the Penn State campus amidst sanctions in 2013, he was looked at as one of the bright spots during the darkest moment in Nittany Lions football history.
The 6'4, 236 pounder looked the part from his first snap under center, in former head coach Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense. O'Brien was the offensive mind that coached Tom Brady throughout his four greatest seasons of his first ballot NFL Hall of Fame career and was labeled as the perfect coach for one of the nation's top quarterback recruits.
Hackenberg looked like a wily veteran during his freshman season, leading his team to a 7-5 record, which could have been even better if the kicking game did not let them down. The 247Sports composite five-star completed almost 60% of his passes and had a 20 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions. He showed clutch play, driving 80-yards in 50 seconds, with no timeouts against Michigan to tie the game, before defeating the Wolverines in four overtimes. He also showed natural poise in the pocket and a big, strong arm that had NFL scouts drooling and counting down the days until he became draft eligible.
O'Brien and Hackenberg were a match made in football heaven.
Fast forward to the 2014 off-season, when O'Brien took the head coaching job with the Houston Texans and former Vanderbilt Head Coach James Franklin was hired to keep the positive momentum rolling.
Franklin was known as a fiery coach who took a lowly Vanderbilt program to three straight bowl games and got the most out of a team that is usually the bottom feeder of the toughest conference in America. But when one looks closer, he has had limited success in his first season of being in-charge of the offense, then he has bounced back once his starting quarterback worked out the kinks and adjusted to his offensive style.
In 2006 which was his first year as offensive coordinator at Kansas State, he had future first round pick Josh Freeman at quarterback, paired with future NFL superstar Jordy Nelson. Freeman finished the season with six touchdowns and 15 interceptions as the Wildcat offense averaged a measly 22.8 points per game.
The offense was then revitalized the following year, with Freeman having a full year of Franklin's offense under his belt. They averaged 35.2 points per game and Freeman bounced back a 18:11 touchdown to interception ratio with a 63% completion percentage.
After Franklin's departure, he went to Maryland to coach the offense. In his first two seasons at College Park, his offenses averaged 21 points per game, before exploding for 32 points per game in his third season. Quarterback Danny O'Brien had a great year, throwing for 22 touchdowns to only eight interceptions.
Vanderbilt saw the potential in Franklin and decided to hire him as their head coach. After averaging 26 points per game in his first season, his offenses averaged over 30 points per game in his final two seasons.
As one can see, there seems to be a one year (in one case two year) adjustment for his quarterbacks in his pro-style offense. The offensive scheme is not too different from what O'Brien brought to Penn State, so look for the Penn State signal caller to bounce back in 2015. There could be a few factors to Hackenberg's rough first season including his inexperienced offensive line, the departures of Allen Robinson, who caught 97 passes in Hackenberg's freshman year and running back Zach Zwinak, who almost eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in 2013.
"I'm excited that Christian is going to be able to continue his development. Keep him upright; allow him to deliver the ball to the playmakers." Franklin told reporters at Big Ten Media Day. "Also the impact of a running game, as we weren't able to consistently run the ball last year. All of those things are going to be really, really important"
The Penn State coach is looking forward to seeing his quarterback improve in 2015, "I'm excited about Christian's opportunities and what he is going to do this year."