Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg endured a very difficult 2015 season, right to the bitter end.

Now, he’ll try to make himself the best possible pro prospect he can be.

Hackenberg announced after Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss to the Georgia Bulldogs that he will enter the 2016 NFL Draft. The junior is betting on his talent, and perhaps on the right set of circumstances, by leaving college one year early.

Hackenberg suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter of the TaxSlayer Bowl. He had been pounded throughout the regular season, beginning with a nightmarish opening-week game against Temple’s outstanding defense. Hackenberg was sacked 10 times that day. The miserable experience represented much of his career at Penn State under current head coach James Franklin. The year in which Hackenberg played his best was 2013, his freshman campaign. The identity of his coach that season might serve as one of the foremost reasons Hackenberg is leaving State College, Pa.


In 2013, this man was Christian Hackenberg’s collegiate head coach:

Bill O’Brien brought out the best in Hackenberg in 2013 at Penn State. O’Brien — given the unenviable task of having to lead the PSU program after the explosive Jerry Sandusky scandal and the death of a disgraced Joe Paterno — did far better in Happy Valley than many critics anticipated. He also did far better than Penn State fans probably expected, given the entirety of the situation.

O’Brien has a sharp offensive mind honed by many experiences, including a stint in multiple capacities with the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick. Fresh from that tour of duty with the Pats, alongside Tom Brady, O’Brien was in position to impart a lot of football and quarterbacking lessons to Hackenberg.

The heart of this story — Hackenberg declaring for the draft — lies in the established reality that the draft buzz surrounding the quarterback exists precisely because of O’Brien’s tutelage. Without that breakout 2013 season, Hackenberg would not be seen as the prospect he is today.

Surely, then, Hackenberg — in his heart of hearts — is absorbing the fact that there are only 32 NFL teams, and many of them need a quarterback. One of them is the Houston Texans, with O’Brien firmly ensconced as the team’s coach, on the verge of somehow making the playoffs. It might be very hard to sell Hackenberg as a first-round selection, but if he is picked in the second or third round by the Texans, landing with O’Brien — his best college coach — would seem to be a happy and favorable outcome. The up-front money of a first-round pick would not be there, but Hackenberg could make back that money in time with the right guidance.

Consider the possibility that Chip Kelly might reunite with his college quarterback, Marcus Mariota, in Tennessee with the Titans. That could happen in Houston with Hackenberg and O’Brien.

It will be fascinating to watch.

About Matt Zemek

| CFB writer since 2001 |

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