Franklin sees Hackenberg as team leader

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is "big," "strong," "athletic," and "he's got great hair," says new Penn State coach James Franklin.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is "big," "strong," "athletic," and "he's got great hair," says new Penn State coach James Franklin. (         JAMIE SABAU / Getty Images)
Posted: May 16, 2014

It's clear that Penn State coach James Franklin likes what he sees from quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

"He's big. He's strong. He's athletic. He's got great hair, and I have hair envy, because I have none of it, and I appreciate a good head of hair," Franklin, who shaves his head, said Wednesday during a Center City stop for the Penn State Coaches Caravan.

It's also clear that Franklin feels someone with Hackenberg's talents can spark the entire team. Of course, after throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns last season in Bill O'Brien's offense, he will have to learn a new style of play under Franklin, the former Vanderbilt head coach.

But Franklin can't wait to see him in action this fall.

"Having a great quarterback makes everybody on your roster better," he said. "The defense plays better. They want to get the ball back to that guy, because they know he has a chance to do something with it. I'm excited about it, and I think our coaches and our players are."

Though only a sophomore, Hackenberg is an established leader on the Nittany Lions. That also excites Franklin, that his quarterback will set a tone during the summer so everyone is ready to go for preseason.

"From a passing perspective, Christian can make a huge impact this summer," Franklin said. "He can go out with the wideouts, the young wideouts, and the young tight ends, and throw all summer.

"He can really make a dramatic improvement of watching tape, studying our last three years of running this offense with those guys, watching Central Florida and getting prepared for them, and then going out and throwing and getting the timing and chemistry together. They can make dramatic improvements from the end of spring ball to the start of camp."

To have that carry over to the field for the regular season opener in Dublin, Ireland, against Central Florida, "all the pieces of the puzzle - the offensive line, the tight ends, the receivers" - have to be in place around Hackenberg, Franklin emphasized.

The chief concern is the offensive line. The unit returns only two starters, and one of them, senior Miles Dieffenbach, did not practice in the spring, reportedly because of a serious knee injury. Franklin does not comment on injuries.

Defensive linemen Derek Downey and Brian Gaia were moved to the offensive side. To develop depth in the preseason, Franklin might have to take extra offensive linemen to camp at the expense of players at other positions. The NCAA allows a maximum of 105 players to practice.

"You might bring in five new guys that haven't been working with the team; they're new," he said. "Then you might have a guy that's been in the program for six months doing morning workouts and really working his butt off, and now he's being left home.

"That's tough, but we have to have enough guys to practice with," Franklin said. "We'd like to be able to take our two-deep on the offensive line and leave them up with the varsity getting ready for Central Florida because you never know when they're going to have to play. You'd like to have a three-deep offensive line to be on the scout team to get our defense ready."

But Franklin and his staff will focus on getting a capable line in place to keep Hackenberg upright.

"Keeping the quarterback upright is important," he said. "We like that."


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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