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Getting Hack Back

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Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg has had a wild 15 months. One year ago, Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after leading the Nittany Lions to a 7-5 record.

He earned the adoration of Penn State fans after a season in which he showed poise beyond his years, highlighted by an improbable comeback win over Michigan.

Hackenberg’s first college coach, Bill O’Brien, molded him into a confidence-brimming youngster with shoulders broad enough to carry the hopes and dreams of Nittany Nation.

When O’Brien left for the NFL after last season, Hackenberg’s father announced that his son would wait to see who Penn State hired before he made any final decision about his future with the program. Fans waited breathlessly to see what their young hero would do. They rejoiced when the teenage quarterback said he was on board with hire of James Franklin.

The hype only increased this past spring, when Franklin posted a photo-shopped picture of Hackenberg on Twitter, depicting the quarterback as a sort of super hero with Nittany Lions logos under each eye.

"C-Hack Fever" reached its pinnacle in September, after Hackenberg led his Lions into Ireland against Central Florida, threw for 454 yards, and rallied Penn State to a last-second victory. Newspapers began debating whether Hackenberg—after just his eighth college victory—was the best quarterback in the 127-year history of Penn State football.

Hackenberg was on fire, averaging 360.7 passing yards per game in the first three contests of the year. Penn State opened the season 4-0. There was no stopping the Hack Attack.

Fast-forward a few weeks.

Penn State lost six of their final eight games. Hackenberg did not play well. The sophomore threw four touchdowns and nine interceptions over the eight-game stretch, topping the 200-yard mark just twice. In five of the final eight games, Hackenberg failed to complete even 50 percent of his passes.

Even as an injury-ravaged offensive line got healthier, and even as a once-anemic running game found its legs, Hackenberg still struggled.

The 2014 Hackenberg looked nothing like the savior fans and media anointed him to be just a few months ago. The confidence and swagger has been replaced with poor body language and a quick trigger in the pocket. The fact is that Hackenberg now looks like just another kid struggling to play the most demanding of positions at the highest collegiate level.

Of course Hackenberg struggled to live up to the impossible hype the media, fans and even his own coach created.

It’s hard to play quarterback at this level. It’s hard to repeat success. It’s even harder when the system, the coaches and the man in charge of the program all change.

James Franklin did not recruit Christian Hackenberg. The young man did not go to Penn State because of Franklin.

That doesn’t mean the two aren’t compatible. It does mean that both must adjust. Even in the best of situations, that adjustment takes time. It almost always includes bumps in the road.

Franklin must get better if Hackenberg is to get better. Hackenberg has to get better if Penn State is to win.

Franklin knows this. He knew if from the day he was hired, which is why one of the first things he did upon getting the job was to meet with Hackenberg privately.Penn State Christian Hackenberg

There are two simple facts that make Franklin a reasonable candidate to win at Penn State: 1) he can recruit, and 2) he has won before.

That doesn’t guarantee anything, of course. It doesn’t mean Christian Hackenberg will find his mojo again.

But Franklin is not caught in a storm without an umbrella. He knows it’s raining, and he knows how to get out of the rain. He knows that the best path to dry land will be one charted by his supremely talented quarterback. But that quarterback, first and foremost, needs his confidence back.

Based on Franklin’s history, he’ll find a way to make that happen.

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