David Igono’s deep dive into Jets’ new QB Christian Hackenberg.
Watching multiple exposures of Christian Hackenberg has taken me back to a period of college where I struggled mightily before I had a breakthrough. It wasn’t on the football field, but in the classroom. From the beginning of high school through my sophomore year of college I couldn’t get any grade higher than a C in any math class. Yes, I studied and did most of my homework. I would do okay on tests. I developed a mental block to anything math related.
I knew what to do. I knew how to do it. I had confidence in my ability in math, but my grades were inconsistent. I had to take college algebra twice before I had a professor who opened my eyes to what my problem was. After getting a D on the first mini quiz that semester I asked the professor what I needed to get at least a B in the class. I needed a B to not only get my AA from my junior college but also to transfer to a D-1 football team. It was crucial to my football future.
After earning a D on the first mini quiz that semester, I asked the professor what I needed to get at least a B in the class. I needed a B to not only get my AA from my junior college but also to transfer to a D-1 football team. It was crucial to my football future.
She smiled and told me two things that have carried me through school, football, and as a professional. First, she told me I needed to work on math every day, whether I had homework due or not. Second, she said I had to be in class every day and ask questions when I had them. I blindly agreed to do it because I was desperate. Although I had always been a good student, I was not doing the two things she recommended regularly.
Working on your craft on a regular basis, not just when you have a test or a big game, is what separates the professionals from the amateurs. I used that advice from that professor to smash to get my needed B in that class and I smash the mental block I had around math. This personal experience sheds light on the potential development path of Hackenberg. His success at the next level hinges on his commitment to preparation.
The separation is in the preparation however it’s easy to forget the mental and emotional side of that axiom. Becoming a professional athlete is very different than playing in college. You must be emotionally and mentally strong to show up every day to work on your game. You also have to be brave enough to ask yourself questions that you don’t always have answers to.
Hackenberg is one of the most polarizing prospects at the quarterback position. The louder segment of the draft community is low on Hackenberg due to two uneven seasons after a promising freshman campaign under former Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien. The counterpoint to that argument is that Hackenberg has been through multiple offenses and coordinators, short-circuiting any degree of comfort or mastery in those offenses.
I believe he’s more of a developmental quarterback prospect than an elite prospect. There are traits he possesses that bode well for him going forward. There also parts of his profile that hold him back from being more “NFL ready”. There are aspects of his game that will make his transition tough and time sensitive. Above all, Hackenberg needs time to continue learning as he develops so he can become a more well-rounded quarterback.
Hackenberg does a variety of things well as a quarterback. What tempers the good that he brings to the table is his inconsistency. That being said, the framework for a solid quarterback is apparent. He has the requisite arm, mobility, and accuracy to be cultivated into a consistent performer.
This sequence portrays Hackenberg’s execution of a standard play-action pass that is fairly commonplace at the next level. From the fake to the footwork to the throw, Hackenberg nails this attempt. Hackenberg is a formidable talent when he is confident in himself, what he sees, and what is being asked of him. In this next clip, Hackenberg correctly identifies the coverage he wants with the route the receiver is running.
The placement of this toss shows that he trusts his receiver to track the ball accurately and make the catch. It’s a 50-50 ball, but the receiver is set up nicely with the placement of this ball. When Hackenberg sees man coverage he can make plays like this:
Although the defensive back fell at the end it’s hard seeing him breaking up this pass even if he would have kept his feet. I could see Hackenberg thriving in an offense that emphasizes verticality in the passing game with big, physical receivers. Here’s another example of how Hackenberg operates a virtual alley-oop with his receiver.
When I look at quarterbacks I like to observe their feet. A quarterback’s feet can tell you a lot about the design of the play, the quarterback’s confidence in what he sees and what’s happening around him. This next clip demonstrates Hackenberg’s confidence when he can diagnose a coverage and attack it.
After a play-action fake and a few shuffle steps to his left, Hackenberg climbs up the pocket and hits the swing route with two defenders bearing down on him. Stepping up in the pocket is an advanced trait that allows you to see more of the field while avoiding pressure. It also doesn’t restrict a quarterback’s vision of the full field because he’s not exiting to the left or right of the pocket.
This play speaks to the untapped potential that this prospect possesses. Hackenberg sees the safety to the boundary side move to double the post route as he’s climbing the pocket. The decisiveness in which he flips his hips to open to the swing route tells me how he can be fundamentally sound under pressure or when he gets excited and sees what he wants.
Hackenberg is also competent at driving throws into windows. The Penn State offense has a high dose of screens and some deep throws. He’s not asked as much to operate in the intermediate range of the field yet you can see he conceptually understands how to work that area of the field.
This red zone cut shows a superb route by the receiver. Hackenberg threads a line that is caught by his man in a position to protect himself before the safety can arrive.
Manipulating passing windows is one part arm strength, one part accuracy, and another part anticipation. It’s an impressive recipe that opens the field of play for the offense.
Hackenberg fits this pass between a triangle of defenders. Because of how the ball arrives the receiver secures the ball and pick up extra yards. Receivers trust a quarterback that will get them the ball and limit the punishment they incur. Pay special attention to how the receiver is able to secure the catch and immediately protect himself while falling forward in front of four defenders in this next clip.
The common thread that ties what limits Hackenberg’s game is his lack of consistency. Consistency comes with preparation, experience, and confidence. I’ll assume that Hackenberg has the first two criterion up to par by virtue of him starting for three seasons. He also ran multiple offenses with different coordinators in his time at Penn State.
His confidence is what remains to be unclear. Hackenberg is talented and more than capable of breaking down defenses and making sound decisions. He just does not execute this consistently.
All young quarterbacks struggle with balancing within themselves and playing within the offense. I tend to think Hackenberg relies too much on himself and making a great play instead of the play his offense needs in that moment.
Hackenberg struggles to identify pressure pre-snap. He then compounds that by not knowing where to go with the football immediately. He takes sacks on plays where he would be better served throwing the ball away.
Hackenberg should know before the ball is snapped where this ball is going on 3rd & 7. His running back misses the key block that would have afforded him more time to find an open route but you want to see proactive footwork in his stance and where he opens his hips to get the ball out quickly.
The next clip shows that Hackenberg doesn’t have a gameplan when he feels pressure. Sometimes you can’t salvage a play. He needs to scramble to his right and try to throw the ball away if he can’t get a couple yards on the ground.
Another rough patch for Hackenberg is his accuracy on timing routes. Overall, he demonstrates decent accuracy yet his timing routes suffer because he doesn’t drive the ball. He relies too heavily on his arm strength instead of transferring weight onto his plant leg at the end of his delivery.
Even with pressure in his face, Hackenberg has to learn to complete his follow through with contact. The next exposure is a similar route but it’s 3rd & 3.
For whatever reason Hackenberg’s right leg comes up as he follows through, seemingly to get more velocity. The issue isn’t velocity, but placement. Proper placement comes with transferring his weight to his plant leg as he follows through.
Hackenberg needs to make decisions faster. He also needs to make those faster decisions with his arm, not just his feet.
The pocket implodes before Hackenberg can find his check down. He compounds the pressure by spinning into more pressure. He could have maintained his initial escape route and bought enough time to throw the ball away but he felt he could use his legs to bail him out. At the next level, defenders will physically punish him when he opens up his body to pressure in that manner.
It’s 3rd & 7 and Michigan State send six rushers, forcing Hackenberg to act quickly. He had a crossing route in front of him open up as he motions to protect the ball from the pass rush. He has to dump that pass off to that crosser by any means necessary. If Hackenberg is going to be a viable long-term option at quarterback he must identify pressure before it happens and decide where he’s going with the football faster than he has in his career thus far.
In crucial situations. Hackenberg’s technique can fail him. This is another throw where he doesn’t transfer his weight and the pass sails incomplete on third down. The next track demonstrates the same flaw in his delivery that leads to an interception to start the game.
Christian Hackenberg has viable tools that are needed at the next level. One of the concepts he needs to learn is when to use these tools. The longer he holds the ball the harder it is for him to give it to a more capable ball carrier. Speed of thought is just as important as arm strength or mobility.
This red zone cutup displays Hackenberg’s reluctance to make a quick decision before he has a clear picture. If he lets this pass go as the tight end disengages from his block this is an easy touchdown. instead. the defense has time to close and make this a considerably harder throw.
In the next sequence, he does a nice job of avoiding pressure. At the next level, he’s not going to be out-running a lot of defensive linemen. Mobility is best used as a facilitator to make a better decision. It should rarely be used by most quarterbacks as the decision to move the offense.
Like I mentioned earlier, Hackenberg has to tighten up his mechanics. His habit of lifting his back leg on certain throws screws up his ball placement. If he could have driven this ball ahead of the receiver it could have been a touchdown. By lifting his back leg and not following through the pass is given a loft that makes it sail into the window rather than puncturing it.
At this stage of his development, Hackenberg’s arc is predicated on his confidence. When he is confident his game is clean and displays a lot of composure. When he is timid and unsure of himself his technique dips and he’s prone to painful errors.
When he’s confident Hackenberg’s patience and trust in the offense shines through. Here he waits for the linebacker and safety on the play side to clear before he executes a nice throw in the zone they vacated.
When he believes what he sees and he’s patient for it to manifest itself, Hackenberg puts a lot of pressure on a defense.
Christian Hackenberg future sparks reactions that run mostly hot or mostly cold. He has the ideal developmental traits although he may not be considered an elite prospect. He is a player that has baseline quarterback talent with the requisite skill set. He needs to improve on making decisions quicker and clean up his delivery. His development is going to hinge on how he deals with pressure and how quickly he can learn to optimize his mobility instead of maximizing it.
A lot of questions will be asked about Hackenberg’s performances leading up to the draft. He needs to work on his confidence and becoming more sure of himself before he steps on an NFL field. These factors will go a long way to stabilizing his future development because the past leaves a lot to be desired. It is time to redeem that freshman potential.
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