This much is certain thus far in Christian Hackenberg's career: as he goes, so too does Penn State. When the offensive line gives him enough time for things to develop downfield, Hackenberg is one of the most dangerous players in college football. The problem, of course, is that that rarely happened in 2014. Despite standout performances to bookend the season against UCF in Ireland and Boston College in Yankee Stadium, Hack looked positively pedestrian, especially against quality opposition. Enough has been written about the uncertainty facing his season, about the conundrum created by the divide between obvious talent and uninspired performance, so I won't feed you more of that. I'm a perpetual optimist when it comes to basketball, and this year, it's leaking over to football.
So instead, I'm going to give you a brief overview as to you why, thanks to improved circumstances, Christian Hackenberg is going to be great this year.
One of the main knocks against Hackenberg from draftniks tends to be that he holds the ball too long. That tendency, coupled with a pocket that collapsed as quickly and prominently as a Washington Nationals playoff run, resulted in Hack being sacked more often than any power five quarterback (Wake Forest had more, but they had multiple starting QBs, Hack took every hit). Last year's line was young, inexperienced, injured, and more. This year, the line returns most of its starters, with highly-touted JuCo transfer Paris Palmer taking over at left tackle.
Continuity, health, experience, and drive will all be on the side of this year's line, a unit that will certainly be better than last year's if only by default. If the line gives Hack even an average amount of time to make plays, the golden-armed junior is going to make life incredibly difficult for his opposition. People (though I'm sure not opposing defensive coordinators) seem to be forgetting that Hackenberg isn't just potential, which is a dangerous underestimation of his capacity to perform. That capacity will be buoyed buy a plethora of weapons unmatched in the Big Ten by anyone who didn't win a national championship last year.
DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin, Juwan Johnson, Irvin Charles, and DeAndre Thompkins is an arsenal of wide receivers that any quarterback would envy, and Hack gets to utilize all seven this season on the outside and in the slot. Look for Godwin in particular to bust out this season, as improved protection will allow plays to open up downfield. Hackenberg can make just about any throw you can imagine on a football field, and this unit will be fun to watch.
On top of that, you have what is, almost inarguably, the best receiving tight end group in the nation. Kyle Carter, Adam Breneman, and Mike Gesicki represent a group that will range from consistent yard-gaining threat to explosive playmaking. If Breneman is healthy this year, look for the roommate combo to link up early and often. Add that to a run game that should be improved, with Akeel Lynch finally taking over as bellcow and Saquon Barkley coming in situationally to spell behind a line whose run blocking cannot possibly be worse than last year, and at the very least John Donovan and co. can hope to keep the defense honest.
Hack was forced to try and make something out of nothing far too often for any particular brand of success to occur last season, but this year is different. You've seen Hack's floor, you've seen his mid-level, and you've seen glimpses of his best. With improvements all around, he'll have a chance to hit his ceiling this year. He has the arm strength, accuracy, deep ball touch, decision-making, and ability to read defenses inside a 6'4", 220 lb. frame that has every NFL scout drooling. Christian Hackenberg is about to re-introduce himself to you and to opposing defenses in a very, very serious way. If it all comes together, this team could be very special. They'll go as far as Hack's broad shoulders can carry them.
We're only two weeks away.