What, no Penn State quarterback controversy?

ASSOCIATED PRESS Christian Hackenberg , last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, exits field after media day.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Christian Hackenberg , last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, exits field after media day.
Posted: August 06, 2014

STATE COLLEGE - James Franklin opened his first preseason camp as Penn State's head football coach yesterday, and unlike many summers in recent memory the Nittany Lions started practice devoid of competition for the starting quarterback position.

Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg is not only PSU's clear-cut starter but as a sophomore could emerge as one of college football's best at the position. The former five-star recruit is looking to build on an impressive debut campaign in which he threw for 2,955 yards, completed 58.9 percent of his attempts and tossed 20 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while starting all 12 games for then-coach Bill O'Brien.

"He's a guy that just wants to be the best," first-year offensive coordinator John Donovan said of Hackenberg. "He's going to do whatever he has to do to be great, and he's going to do whatever he has to, to have the guys around him be great . . .

"He's an integral part of what we want to do, quite obviously. He's just a great leader and a great worker and when guys see that, and he's one of your best players, that raises everyone else's game."

Hackenberg, just 19 years old, in the offseason added about 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-4 frame and said yesterday he entered camp weighing about 232. He put more mass on his shoulders, chest and back in an effort to take hits better than last season and said he feels stronger and healthier.

Improving on the fundamentals is a focus for him entering Year 2, which kicks off Aug. 30 when Penn State faces Central Florida at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland. In addition to using the preseason to build more chemistry with his receivers, Hackenberg will study film during camp to better understand defenses and coverages as well as work on the white board to harness the new offense.

"I think it gives a lot of guys a lot of opportunities to make plays," Hackenberg said of the offensive system under Franklin. "It's a very pro-style-oriented offense, but I think it spreads the ball around. It allows our running backs to make plays in their run game with multiple schemes. It's a multiple offense that can be extremely explosive if we execute it well."

There aren't any questions when it comes to the quarterback's skill set. The Palmyra, Va., native eclipsed 300 yards passing in four games and completed 14 passes of 40 yards or more. In Penn State's season-ending upset win at Wisconsin, Hackenberg completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and a season-high four touchdowns.

Questions do persist, however, regarding the inexperience of the PSU receiving corps. Allen Robinson, who accounted for 97 catches, 1,432 receiving yards and six scores in 2013, is a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Brandon Felder, who caught the next-most passes (28), graduated.

The Nittany Lions' top returning wide receiver is Eugene Lewis, a redshirt sophomore who last year caught 18 passes for 234 yards with three scores. He will be relied upon heavily. The tight ends, led by Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman, will also be tasked with helping to fill the void left by Robinson.

While the coaching staff is obviously looking for improvements from Hackenberg in certain areas, Franklin noted it's more of a matter of finding the right pieces to surround the quarterback.

"What you like to see with a quarterback, I know in this system, is they get to a point where they feel like the defense can't be right," Franklin said. "That you understand the offense so well that, 'If you play Cover 2, wonderful, I'm going to attack the weakness here. If you go Cover 3, I'm going here. If you go man coverage, here's my man beater. You bring pressure, I'm either going to throw hot or I'm going to readjust the protection to pick it up.'

"When you get to a point where the quarterback feels like he has all those tools at his disposal, then the confidence skyrockets and they feel like the defense can't be right. And that is unbelievably valuable."

Hackenberg said he spent time over the summer working with his receivers and also praised the offensive linemen, a group consisting of just one returning starter in left tackle Donovan Smith, for its offseason work. After meeting with the media for close to an hour yesterday afternoon at Beaver Stadium, the players were eager to hit the practice field.

"I think the team's extremely excited," Hackenberg said. "It's just been one of those things - we've gone through change again. Coach Franklin's brought a lot of energy. He's brought a great coaching staff in here, and us being able to build our relationship with them's been huge."

On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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