Penn State faithful keeping close watch on QB recruit Hackenberg

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg , who plays for Fork Union Military Academyin Virginia, says he will honor his commitment to Penn State. ANDREW SHURTLEFF /Daily Progress
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg , who plays for Fork Union Military Academyin Virginia, says he will honor his commitment to Penn State. ANDREW SHURTLEFF /Daily Progress
Posted: August 20, 2012

FORK UNION, Va. - Amid the padless pandemonium of summer-camp drills involving 100-plus players, few reacted to Christian Hackenberg's shouted signals Thursday night, the quarterback's confident utterances muffled by the competing noise on Fork Union Military Academy's isolated practice fields.

Curiously though, beyond this remote Shenandoah Mountain institution that has served as a football finishing school for talents like Mike Quick, Eddie George, and Vinny Testaverde, the high-schooler's every signal is being intensely scrutinized.

Anxious about the future of its school's signature sport, Penn State nation has riveted its attention on Hackenberg. In the hazy aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Bill O'Brien's prized recruit, a talented and poised senior, is faced with a Clash-like dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?

Will the 6-foot-5, 220-pound native Pennsylvanian, rated as the nation's best scholastic QB by several scouting services, honor his April commitment and lead the scandal-scarred Nittany Lions into a new era of success and respect? Or will he ultimately be driven elsewhere by the litany of bad news that since November has descended on the school like acid rain?

"Right now I have a solid commitment to Penn State," Hackenberg said Friday. "But I'm sort of seeing what else plays out up there."

Such ambiguous statements are being parsed like ancient texts in Happy Valley, as is every other signal, real or imagined, from Hackenberg. Last week, his failure to tweet was interpreted ominously by Nittany Lions fans who see the strong-armed QB as the keystone to any Penn State redemption.

"He hasn't Tweeted in days," said one anxious participant in a Penn State chat room. "He's probably deciding where he's going to transfer."

In reality, Hackenberg hadn't tweeted because he hadn't had access to social media. Cellphones are banned at Fork Union's camp, which is leading up to the school's ESPN opener against Richmond's Hermitage High on Friday.

As soon as he departs this camp and this campus, with its turreted structures and college-like sports facilities, Hackenberg plans to contact the five or six other key recruits - including Camp Hill tight end Adam Brenneman - who could hold the key to Penn State's immediate future.

"Right now we're hanging in strong," he said. "That core of guys, there's a great opportunity for us to come in, play early, and be developed by one of best coaching staffs in the country. . . . I feel like we've got the right group of guys that can handle everything. It just depends on when it crosses that line for us."

Things almost reached that point last week, when Hackenberg, who hopes to major in business or communications, read that the ongoing Sandusky scandal could jeopardize Penn State's accreditation.

"I've heard all the talk about accreditation," he said. "We'll see how that plays out. But I've got time, and I've got a couple options."

He's likely got even more options now than he had a year ago when he was one of the nation's most hotly recruited juniors. Ever since the NCAA dropped its draconian sanctions on Penn State - a bowl ban, a sizable reduction in scholarships, and a $60 million fine - other coaches have been in contact.

Though he won't reveal which schools have been calling, he did admit that he's had considerable interest. NCAA rules give him until February to recommit.

"Yeah, I'm getting bothered a little bit," he said. "But it hasn't been too crazy. Coach [Mickey Sullivan] usually does a pretty good job of cutting it off."

Not yet 18, he's already been to most of the nation's top quarterback camps and has been a contestant - finishing second - on ESPN's Elite 11, a reality show that seeks to identify the nation's best high school QB.

All that, plus being viewed as a savior for a trouble-plagued program that desperately needs one, has placed considerable pressure on the affable youngster's weight-room-enhanced shoulders.

"That's a lot," Sullivan said. "He's just a kid."

Under pressure

On the surface at least, the pressure doesn't seem to faze Hackenberg, who wears No. 1 and walks with a confident swagger, usually at the head of a pack. It could help him deal with what awaits in the intense spotlight at Penn State, should he decide to attend.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure for us all there," he said. "We're going to have to deal with a lot of stuff. It's going to be coming at us from all angles. From the media. From opposing teams. From everywhere."

On July 28, as several Penn State players were deciding to transfer, Hackenberg visited the school; met with O'Brien; and, though he has yet to do so unequivocally, recommitted.

"Those are the guys I gave my first commitment to, and I'm a pretty loyal person," he said. "It takes a lot for me to walk away from something I committed to. It felt pretty good up there. I felt at home."

In reality, he wasn't too far from home. Born in Lehighton on the edges of Pennsylvania's Coal Regions, Hackenberg's parents both grew up in Tamaqua. His father, now a sales rep, played - and later coached - at Marion Catholic there before earning a football scholarship to Virginia.

"He liked it here, and when I was about 9 we moved down," he said.

The family lives in Palmyra, eight miles south of here on Route 15, so Hackenberg is one of the military school's few commuters.

In the state-of-the-art athletic building, the Estes Center, a sign on a basement wall lists all the schools whose recruiters visited the campus last year. It reads like a typical week's top 25, which is one of the reasons players like Hackenberg come.

"It's an opportunity for a youngster to get exposure," said Sullivan. "There's a vast number of people [recruiters] going to come through here. You don't get that at most high schools. We offer youngsters an opportunity to be seen."

Sullivan had friends who knew Hackenberg's father from his Virginia days, and the coach met the quarterback when he was a ninth-grader at nearby Fluvanna High School.

Even though he's strong-armed, quick of feet and intelligent enough, in Hackenberg's own words, "to pick up any offense out there in its entirety," Sullivan suggested the physically precocious youngster probably wasn't yet the best QB Fork Union had produced.

"We had Vinny Testaverde and Don Majkowski here, to name a few," he said. "But he's a very good football player. He came to us as a sophomore and ended up starting the last half of the year. He's just grown physically and mentally. Last year as a junior, we lost our running game when a running back got hurt, and Christian got beat on pretty good. He had to grow up physically and become mentally tough. And the one thing you notice about him is how competitive the kid is."

Competitive enough to want to go to Penn State and confront one of the biggest challenges in college football history?

"I feel like it's a good opportunity for me to be one of the cornerstones there," he said. "We can start a new era at Penn State and help them get over this little hiccup."


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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