Nittany Line: Two true freshmen making impact on Penn State's offense

Posted: November 15, 2013

STATE COLLEGE - Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman were at the center of a recruiting class that repeatedly had to answer not only "Why Penn State?" but "Still, Penn State?"

Hackenberg and Breneman were the two most highly regarded players in the Nittany Lions' first recruiting class after the NCAA hit the program with historic sanctions in July 2012 after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the tandem became the faces of the future for Penn State before putting on a uniform. When they suit up tomorrow as Purdue visits Beaver Stadium, both are looking to further their on-field impacts.

As the team's starting quarterback, Hackenberg has continued to be in the spotlight. While Breneman's contributions have been quieter, he's getting a decent amount of snaps at tight end and has helped on special teams. With only three games remaining in their initial collegiate campaigns, both 18-year-olds said the attention and questions they got before arriving in Happy Valley gave them perspective and helped them grow up.

"It really made me mature and realize what was important in life when the sanctions came out and what it really meant to commit to something," Breneman said. "Dealing with the media, I had to deal with it for a while; it was good to get a little break from it, but it helped me mature a lot."

Breneman missed his senior season at Cedar Cliff High with a torn ACL in his right knee, and instead of sticking around and playing a final season of basketball, the Camp Hill native decided to enroll early and start rehabbing with Penn State's medical staff in January. He has appeared in eight games this season, and has become more of a focal point in the passing game as weeks go by.

The 6-4, 235-pound tight end has nine grabs for 84 yards on the season, four of which came in the last two games. Breneman noted that getting a jump on coach Bill O'Brien's offense 10 months ago certainly helped his development, and he earned praise from his coach for his play and the ability to practice through some foot and ankle injuries this season.

"I thought he played very well [last week] against Minnesota," O'Brien said. "I thought he blocked well and I thought he caught the ball when it was thrown to him. He made some big plays for us in the game. He's another guy that I think is a young player who's got a really bright future here. He's a great kid, practices hard, practices hurt."

As Breneman mentioned, he's had a "break" from the media since arriving at Penn State, and Wednesday was the first time he was made available for comment this season. Hackenberg has spoke to reporters a number of times, but the two are the only true freshmen to have done so, showing the trust O'Brien has in the young players. Knowing this season is neither Breneman nor Hackenberg's first rodeo with the media, the coach joked at his Tuesday news conference: "I think the more you do it, the better you get at it. You guys have noticed that with me, right?"

Sixteen true freshmen signed with Penn State in February, 14 are still with the program, and seven debuted this season. Hackenberg has been one of the nation's best true freshmen, as he is second in the Big Ten with 243 passing yards per game. Though he gets more glory that the rest, Hackenberg said he and his classmates remain closely knit.

"We were really tight before we even stepped foot on campus, and I think that goes back to everything we went through," Hackenberg said. "Our relationship has only gotten stronger since we've came up here. We're actually finally doing it."

Breneman acknowledged that his commitment to Penn State - made in March 2012 - feels like a very long time ago, but after handling all of the inquires, scrutiny and uncertainty, he's happy with his decision.

"I have a huge amount of trust in coach O'Brien and [tight ends coach John Strollo]," Breneman said. "I think it just kind of taught me that when you commit to something, no matter how tough things get or how things go, you owe it to someone to keep your word."

Penn State vs. Purdue

When: Noon, tomorrow

Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WNTP (990-AM), WNPV (1440-AM)

Records: Penn State 5-4, 2-3 Big Ten; Purdue 1-8, 0-5

3 THINGS TO WATCH:

1. A foundering Purdue offense.

Penn State scored only 10 points last week against Minnesota; it was a lousy offensive showing, but pales in comparison with what Purdue has done, or not done, this season. The Boilermakers are averaging a measly 11.8 points per game and have scored only 31 points in five conference games. Purdue ranks last in the Big Ten in most major offensive categories and went three games without visiting the red zone.

2. Penn State’s defensive line needs to wake up.

It has been a quiet few weeks for Penn State’s front four. The unit had a solid game against Michigan a month ago, but in the three games since, Penn State has only three sacks. Tackle DaQuan Jones has been the unit’s best player, but his numbers have subsided since the beginning of conference play. End C.J. Olaniyan leads the team with four sacks, but 2.5 of them came against Michigan. Purdue will be forced to throw if it gets in a hole, so look for the Lions’ pass rush to make much more of an impact than it has lately.

3. A big special-teams play for Penn State.

Penn State’s offense and defense both struggled last week. Even though both may turn it around against the Boilermakers, the Lions still could use a spark early in the game, and they could find it in special teams. Whether it is a big return, blocked kick or big hit that causes a turnover, Penn State could certainly use the extra burst of momentum a crucial special teams play always seems to give.

Prediction: Penn State 31, Purdue 9

It won’t be a particularly fun football game to watch, but it will be a win for Penn State, something the team needs after a letdown in Minneapolis last week. Purdue is going through a transition period, and seasons like this will happen. Purdue freshman Danny Etling roomed with the Lions’ Christian Hackenberg at the Elite 11 quarterback camp, and he could be a star down the road. But Penn State’s defense should have its way with him and the Purdue offense, while Hackenberg and the Lions’ attack will score enough to make it a lopsided victory.


On Twitter: @SPianovich

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