"We sort of feed off that offensively. At times, it is difficult because it's a totally new environment. The college level has a lot more expectations than high school. So I feel like he and I complement each other well with how I handle it and how he approaches it."
Although he has shown some moments of freshman inconsistency, Hackenberg has performed well in O'Brien's complex offense. He is second in the Big Ten with 2,187 passing yards and has thrown for 13 touchdowns.
Some games have been better than others. His ultimate season highlight arguably was the 80-yard, 23-second drive he led in the final minute of regulation that tied Michigan, ultimately leading to an overtime win.
A lowlight came on Penn State's last drive against Minnesota last weekend, when Hackenberg fumbled the snap on second and goal from the 1 and turned it over.
He has thrived under the tutelage of O'Brien, who worked with New England's Tom Brady during his time in the NFL.
"He's been great for me," Hackenberg said. "I'm a young player, I'm 18, I'm a freshman. Everything I see I'm seeing for the first time. He's been really understanding. He's really helped me out a lot just being a game manager and understanding my job."
As the season has progressed, his communication with O'Brien has gotten better.
"It comes down to terminology and me getting used to how he explains coverages or defense," Hackenberg said. "I've become more comfortable with that. He and I are starting to speak the same language now."
O'Brien calls the maturation of Hackenberg "an ever-evolving process."
"I think one of the things that's great about this kid is that he's very resilient," he said. "He's smart, he's got a tremendous work ethic, and he's 18 years old.
"That's not an excuse for anything. It is what it is. Like they say, you are what your record says you are. You're 5-4, that's what your record says you are. But I do think that over the next three weeks, I believe you'll see improvement and I think you'll see him get better and better in his years here at Penn State."
O'Brien also said Hackenberg has done a good job handling the "freshman wall" because he maintains his ability to focus on football regardless of what's happening off the field. Hackenberg said that's one of his duties as a team leader.
"I'm really focused on doing everything that I can do to help the team, whatever it takes," he said. "You're going to face adversity through the year. It's a long season. So getting adjusted to college football was the key thing for me, something to push through and help the team."