Numerous conclusions have been drawn regarding former quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s tenure at Penn State. Whether fans view it as productive, disappointing or misunderstood, the only certainty about Hackenberg’s Penn State career is that it’s over.
But losing Hackenberg might not have been that much of a loss for James Franklin’s Nittany Lions. Hackenberg, described by scouts as a pro-style gunslinger, didn’t exactly fit Franklin’s up-tempo offense that featured numerous spread principles.
Behind a shoddy offensive line – and that’s putting it nicely – Hackenberg regressed during his final two seasons in Happy Valley. In 2015, he threw for only 2,525 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions and was forced to leave his final game of his career due to injury.
Hackenberg probably couldn’t wait to leave for the NFL and maybe Penn State wasn’t begging him to stay. With the page turned, Franklin now has the opportunity to choose his guy rather than play someone he inherited from former coach Bill O’Brien. Franklin hired former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to implement a no-huddle, spread offense and now must develop the right quarterback to lead it.
Of the two primary candidates to replace Hackenberg, only redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley has any playing experience. McSorley turned heads during Penn State’s spring game, connecting on 23 of 27 passes for 281 yards, four touchdowns and a red-zone interception during the annual Blue-White scrimmage.
McSorley served as a backup last season, but played during Penn State’s Gator Bowl loss to Georgia in relief of the injured Hackenberg. He completed 14 of 27 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort. On the season, McSorley completed 20 of 40 attempts for 185 yards and two touchdowns. He exited the spring as the favorite to win the competition, but must back it up with a strong start in fall practice.
McSorley’s main competitor is redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens. A former 3-star recruit, Stevens played sparingly with the starters during the spring game. He went 10 of 17 passing with 100 yards and completed all three of his passes for 52 of those yards while playing with the starters.
Whoever wins the competition will be set up to succeed. The Nittany Lions return nine offensive starters, including running back Saquon Barkley and receivers Chris Goodwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall. Penn State returns six offensive linemen who played significantly last season and that unit shouldn’t be as porous as it was last year.
The Nittany Lions have plenty of returning talent and an offense that aligns strongly with Franklin’s preferences. Losing Hackenberg shouldn’t hurt terribly, because it allows Franklin to insert a quarterback that will be more productive in this frantic system.
The system is in place, and the weaponry is ready. Now all Franklin needs to do is develop a leader capable of getting Penn State in the running for a Big Ten title. If he can do that, people in Happy Valley will quickly forget about the underwhelming Hackenberg era.