Follow along with our Penn State Recruiting Rewind series every Saturday morning. If you missed out, be sure to read our look back at RB Saquon Barkley, LB Brandon Bell, LB Jason Cabinda, TE Mike Gesicki, WR Chris Godwin and QB Trace McSorley.
Members of the 2013 Penn State recruiting class faced tremendous adversity en route to their collegiate careers. QB Christian Hackenberg emerged as a catalyst for the group, effectively becoming the face of what many hoped would be a fresh start for the Nittany Lions football program.
Now a New York Jets player, the Pennsylvania native has spent most of this decade in the spotlight. Hackenberg was a consensus blue-chip prospect throughout his high school career, which he capped off in the Under Armour All-America Game.
The son of a former college quarterback, he made an immediate mark after transferring to Fork Union Military Academy (Fork Union, Va.) for his sophomore year. That program is known for producing college stars and several NFL standouts such as RB Eddie George and WR Plaxico Burress.
Hackenberg started behind center in each of his three seasons there, producing 5,473 passing yards and 55 touchdown tosses, according to Penn State. He helped Fork Union reach two state championship games during this span, winning the 2010 VISAA Division I title as a sophomore.
Along the way, Hackenberg earned Elite 11 accolades. He would return to that annual event during his Penn State career, serving as a mentor for rising recruits.
“Christian is a kid you build your program around. You’re better the moment he steps on campus,” said Super Bowl champion QB Trent Dilfer during the 2012 Elite 11 selection ceremony.
Plenty of programs expressed a similar sentiment. Alabama, Florida, Miami, Penn State, Stanford, South Carolina and Tennessee all offered by February 2012, when Hackenberg was about midway through his junior year.
Here’s a look at how recruiting-industry leaders viewed Hackenberg, who competed at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds as a high school senior.
- 247Sports: No. 1 quarterback; No. 7 overall; 5-star prospect
- ESPN: No. 1 quarterback; No. 15 overall; 4-star prospect
- Rivals: No. 2 quarterback; No. 24 overall; 5-star prospect
- Scout: No. 2 quarterback; No. 33 overall; 5-star prospect
Fresh off his first National Signing Day in State College, then-Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien searched for a centerpiece pledge to provide foundation in the 2013 recruiting cycle. He found it Feb. 29 – Leap Day 2012 – when Hackenberg committed to the program.
A junior day visit to campus earlier that month helped seal the deal.
“Christian was smart about this, he knew he wanted a program that fit his physical gifts,” Fork Union coach Micky Sullivan told Erick Smith of USA Today at the time. “That means he wanted a pro-style offense and having a head coach that ran an NFL offense with Tom Brady certainly didn’t hurt. He wanted to be in the right system and he found it and he will learn a lot from coach O’Brien.”
O’Brien worked with Brady as a member of the New England Patriots staff for five seasons prior to his arrival in Happy Valley. Senior QB Matt McGloin would enjoy a strong senior campaign under his direction in 2012, but O’Brien needed to find a long-term option who could immediately challenge for the job.
Hackenberg fit the bill.
However, before he fought his way to the top of the Nittany Lions depth chart, Hackenberg became the focus of a media firestorm surrounding that 2013 recruiting class. On July 23, 2012, the NCAA issued widespread sanctions against the university and football program as a result of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
From a $60 million fine and vacated Joe Paterno era victories to a postseason ban and scholarship restrictions, the penalties were severe. This development caused several college football prognosticators to discard Penn State as a potential powerhouse program for years, maybe even a decade, ahead.
Naturally, it’s a time that proved turbulent for committed recruits. Staring at a future with no bowl games and roster restrictions, some expected Hackenberg to jump ship.
Instead, he stood firm.
“At the end of the day, if there’s football at Penn State, I’m going to be there,” he told Mitch Sherman of ESPN.
His father, Erick Hackenberg, also articulated his son’s steadfast feelings toward a program under pressure.
“The building has crumbled. There are the ashes,” he told Sherman. “It’s time for the phoenix to rise out in some way, shape or form. It takes a special kid with a different mind frame to be able to step into that environment and accept the social pressure that comes with it.”
True to his word, Hackenberg continued with Penn State’s class through his final prep campaign. He attended the Nittany Lions final game of 2012, an overtime victory against Wisconsin that pushed the team to 8-4 in O’Brien’s debut season.
Normally that would be enough to send the squad to a quality bowl matchup. Instead, it marked the end of a fall marred by the aforementioned NCAA sanctions.
Hackenberg, unwavering in his loyalty to the school, knew his time was coming.
“I’m itching to get up there and start picking things up,” he told Sean Fitz of 247Sports on game day.
Hackenberg enrolled the following June and earned starting reps as a true freshman. His tremendous first season featured 2,955 yards and 20 touchdown tosses, and resulted in early hype about his NFL draft potential.
O’Brien bolted after that fall, returning to NFL as head coach of the Houston Texans. Hackenberg never managed to duplicate or exceed the success of 2013, throwing 28 total touchdowns and 21 interceptions in his final two seasons at Penn State.
Though he struggled as a sophomore (12 touchdowns, 15 interceptions), Hackenberg did finish that 2014 campaign with MVP honors in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. It represented Penn State’s return to the postseason after a two-year ban.
Despite his on-field inconsistencies, Hackenberg provided a steady presence for a program ravaged by changes. He started all 38 games in his collegiate career, posting Penn State career passing records for yards (8,457), touchdowns (48) and completions (693).
The juxtaposition of how he performed under James Franklin versus efforts under O’Brien created quite an enigma for NFL scouts when Hackenberg declared early entree into the 2016 NFL draft.
He found a professional home in the second round when the New York Jets selected him with the No. 51 pick. Hackenberg didn’t play a down during his rookie regular season but moves toward the 2017 season in contention for the team’s starting job.