Minutes after quarterback Christian Hackenberg earlier this week said that a primary focus for his freshman season was on becoming “a game manager,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien had a predictable response when asked about it.
“What’s that mean?” he said in a way that only O’Brien can. “You’ve got to define what a game manager is.”
OK, then, Coach, let’s ask your precocious young quarterback:
“I think, especially in this offense, you can do so much at the line of scrimmage,” Hackenberg said. “You have to understand not only the passing game but the running game. You have to understand protections. I think with the greater understanding I have of that, it helps put the team in those type of situations where we can be successful. That’s one thing I really focused on, and I’ve looked at is what the team needs to expect out of me is understanding those types of things and getting us into those right places. So that’s sort of how I refer to it as a game manager.”
Hackenberg, a five-star recruit, has numbers that suggest he’s been much more than the overused, cliché “game manager” moniker that usually comes with negative connotations. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder is second in the Big Ten in completions (210) and passing yards (237.8 per game) and fourth in total offense.
A four-time conference freshman of the week honoree, has eight 200-yard passing efforts in 11 games this season and, barring injury early in Saturday’s game at Wisconsin, will finish the season at No. 3 on the Penn State single-season passing list.
“He’s definitely developed,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “Coach O’Brien does a great job… He takes great pride in that… This kid has gotten better and better and better throughout the year, which you would expect. He’s a competitor. He can throw all the balls. I think the offense has grown, as it’s gone through the season, to give him a little bit more as he’s progressed and developed. They’ve just got confidence in each other as a play caller and as a quarterback.
“He was very highly recruited for a reason. He’s a very talented young man. Great poise for a freshman. I know he really does. He hangs in there and doesn’t make a bunch of bad decisions. Takes it when it’s there, gets it to them, gives them a chance to move the ball down the field.”
While doing all he can to limit the pressure on the shoulders of a player who is viewed, in some ways, as The Savior who will lead Penn State out of its NCAA sanctions abyss, O’Brien has simultaneously also praised Hackenberg whenever possible. The two have a close relationship.
“I tell you what, I think he’s done a good job,” O’Brien said. “Overall, when you look at being 18 years old and coming in here and playing pretty much every snap of every game, I think he’s gotten better and better at doing that.”
Finally, O’Brien gave his interpretation of Hackenberg’s “game manager” self-label.
“Game manager is somebody that understands when to run the ball, that does a good job of using the clock at the end of the half and using the clock at the end of a game, understands coverage reads and when to throw it, when to check to a run, things like that,” O’Brien said. “He, overall, has gotten better and better at that throughout the year. I think as time goes on, he’ll be even better at it.”
Perhaps even “manage” his way into the NFL or “manage” the Nittany Lions into a major bowl before getting there.
Enjoy your holiday weekend!