Hackenberg threw two second-half touchdowns that day against Syracuse, and in his first three games in a Penn State uniform, the 18-year-old has lived up to his billing. A true freshman sensation, Hackenberg has embraced the role of being Penn State's starting quarterback with 851 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions and two Big Ten Freshman of the Week Awards in his first 3 weeks.
Before Hackenberg arrived at Penn State from Palmyra, Va., he had the opportunity to work with Whitfield, who employed his atypical training methods that he's used with the likes of No. 1 picks Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, as well as 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Hackenberg and Whitfield worked together at ESPN's "Elite 11" quarterback camp in Redondo Beach, Calif., which features the best high school arms in the nation. Hackenberg has filled out his frame a bit since the camp during the summer of 2012, but Whitfield still saw a 6-4 prospect who he described as explosive.
Whitfield said he thought Hackenberg had the chance to "be a monster," and compared his physical traits to one of the most successful quarterbacks he's worked with.
"To be that big, that strong, that capable, it reminds me in some ways of Andrew Luck," Whitfield said. "I'm not saying he is Andrew, but Andrew is well-rounded, he doesn't have an Achilles' heel physically to confuse or do something to him . . . [Hackenberg] is probably as well-rounded physically as you're going to find."
Whitfield's unconventional workouts include having quarterbacks work on dropping back in the ocean, simulating defensive linemen by holding up rakes, and pressuring passers with brooms. But Whitfield also helps players study film, and gets them ready for game day.
"He understands the position well," Hackenberg said. "He's really helped me mechanically, he's a really big mechanic guy. He helped me fine-tune things."
Hackenberg was at the camp in mid-July 2012, an immensely troubling time for the program to which he verbally had committed. In the wake of the Freeh Report regarding the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, there was a lot of speculation that Penn State would be hit with penalties from the NCAA.
Whitfield called being around Hackenberg at that crossroad period "probably the single-most unique thing" he ever saw in his 3 years working at the Elite 11 camp. Sanctions were levied the day after the camp wrapped up, but Whitfield said he still had dozens of calls from coaches around the country saying that if Hackenberg wanted to leave Penn State, they would love to have him.
Hackenberg stayed true to his word, and Whitfield said the then-17-year-old never shied away from showing his commitment.
"You felt uncomfortable for him seeing other athletes wearing their Texas, Michigan, Ohio State baseball caps. USC and Alabama hoodies, and everything," Whitfield said. "There wasn't a day that went by that he did not come out and wear Penn State gear . . . For all the sheer scrutiny and criticisms, and things about the school, it almost felt like it was toxic. And he never let it go."
Whitfield noted he texts and calls Hackenberg often, and not just to offer advice, but to see how he's handling the life of being a college quarterback in such a notable program.
Hackenberg was popular before he enrolled in classes in June, and it's only grown larger since he was named the starter. He said he tries to keep his head down walking between classes. Hackenberg noted he's taking mostly gen-ed classes this semester, but he got a very public early progress report from what coach Bill O'Brien said was his extra class.
"If you're taking five classes on campus, this is your sixth class, especially playing quarterback," O'Brien said earlier in the week. "At this point I'd give him a B."
O'Brien - whom Whitfield called Hackenberg's "biggest asset" - said there are improvements Hackenberg has to make, like having a "silent alarm" to let him know when he needs to get rid of the ball, but is pleased with his 71.7 completion percentage. The quarterback has also received praise from older teammates for how he commands the huddle, and senior offensive tackle Adam Gress said, "He's not afraid to yell a little bit."
When Whitfield was on national TV, he predicted Hackenberg would lead Penn State to a victory. Not everyone on the set agreed with him, but Whitfield was confident his pupil would come through, because he had seen what Hackenberg was made of.
In the first month of this season, everyone else is getting that chance.
"I told them they needed to understand this kid possesses some unbelievable traits," Whitfield said. "And if nothing else, this is a guy who loves a fight."
Fans will have to wait 10 years, but Penn State and West Virginia announced the next installment in an old, yet long-dormant rivalry.
Penn State will host West Virginia at Beaver Stadium in 2023, and the teams will meet again the following year in Morgantown, W.V., the schools announced.
The teams have met 59 times, with Penn State leading the series 48-9-2, but haven't faced each other since 1992.
Penn State vs. Kent State
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WNTP (990-AM), WNPV (1440-AM)
3 THINGS TO WATCH:
1. A motivated Penn State defense: The Lions’ defense was clearly outplayed on its home turf last week against Central Florida. John Butler’s unit allowed 507 yards in a 34-31 loss. Penn State’s defense likely will take the frustrations of last week out on a Kent State attack that is not nearly as threatening as what UCF posed last week.
2. Dri Archer on the sideline: Archer is Kent State’s best playmaker and was a major part of the team’s 11-3 finish last season. The 5-8 running back accounted for 20 touchdowns last season, but has been slowed with a left ankle injury in 2013. He took some carries last week against LSU, but Kent State coach Paul Haynes said he does not expect Archer to play tomorrow, which will make life easier for the Penn State defense.
3. A 250-plus yard day from Penn State’s backfield: Kent State gave up an average of 5.3 yards per rush in its first three games, and if Penn State can take an early, two-score lead, the team will keep the ball on the ground more often. The three-pronged attack with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch will all get touches, and the Lions’ offensive line should be able to get a push without much trouble.
PREDICTION: Penn State 38, Kent State 10. Penn State goes out and takes care of business in the final game on its nonconference slate. Christian Hackenberg should continue to look more polished, and the defense should be able to force a few turnovers. If the Lions can get back to winning ways, they will be in good shape entering the Big Ten season, as they have a bye next week before traveling to Indiana.