After keeping his decision as quiet as possible, Bill O'Brien unveiled Christian Hackenberg as the starting quarterback Saturday when the Penn State Nittany Lions squared off against the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium.
The true freshman did not disappoint.
Hackenberg came into camp this year as the top-rated pro-style quarterback recruit in the country, via 247Sports. Despite the disadvantage of missing 15 spring practices, rumblings quickly began to emerge that he was impressing both his coaches and teammates in training camp.
After first claiming, via Dustin Hockensmith of PennLive, that JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson was "a little bit ahead" in the QB competition, O'Brien admitted to Stephen Pianovich of the Daily News that they were "very close."
It appeared as though "Hack" had closed the gap, and Saturday he showed why.
Rather than nurturing his blue-chip quarterback, O'Brien showed utmost confidence in him by going with empty-backfield looks, running a no-huddle package and going for it on fourth down—all on the first drive. Hackenberg eventually closed that drive with a 42-yard punt, giving future opponents a little gem to look at when they watch film.
Syracuse's game plan was obvious: Stop the run and make the freshman beat us. Hackenberg answered by going 22-of-31 for 278 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both from over 50 yards out. Despite a running game that failed to get going and Syracuse consistently dialing up blitzes, he showed great poise and never looked rattled.
Like all true freshmen who find themselves under center, there were a few hiccups.
Without All-Conference wide receiver Allen Robinson in the first half, Hack seemed hesitant to throw downfield. He was late on an out route that was picked off and later fell victim to a zone blitz that would have tricked most seasoned vets. But once Robinson entered the game, the offense seemed to come together around Hackenberg.
O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher have some things to work on this week, but their canvas is far from blank.
With time and coaching, Hackenberg will learn to go through his progressions quicker and identify blitz schemes. And with opposing coaches looking to pressure him, he'll have plenty of chances to figure it out under fire. He did a good job of "feeling" the pass rush and moving in the pocket, but he took more hits than he should have.
Despite indications that both quarterbacks would see action Saturday, Ferguson played just one series early in the game that ended when he fumbled in the pocket.
It was clear when Hackenberg signed his letter of intent in February that he was the quarterback of the future. The future is now.
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