Penn State Football: What Christian Hackenberg Needs to Improve in Big Ten Play

Tim Tolley@@TimTolley_BRContributor IOctober 4, 2013

Penn State Football: What Christian Hackenberg Needs to Improve in Big Ten Play

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    Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

    Nittany Lions freshman quarterback sensation Christian Hackenberg has captured the attention of Penn State fans with his big arm and pocket presence through the first four games, but his play hasn't been without flaw. Coming out of the bye week, "Hack" will need to show some improvement in a few areas to ensure success for his team through the Big Ten schedule. 

    Facing an Indiana team that gave up 623 total yards in its last game (Missouri) gives him a good opportunity to get off on the right foot.

    This isn't an indictment by any stretch. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn't been impressed by Hackenberg, and he deserves the praise. However, he does at times make plays that remind you he is a freshman. 

    Here are a some things Hackenberg needs to improve upon over the rest of the season.

Protect the Pigskin

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    Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

    Through four games, Hack has thrown four interceptions and had an unforced fumble that resulted in the lone touchdown for Eastern Michigan during the Week 3 contest at Beaver Stadium. 

    In the game against Syracuse, a fourth-quarter interception set up an easy touchdown for the Orange, bringing them within a touchdown of taking the lead. 

    Hackenberg needs to do a better job of identifying coverage schemes and getting through his progressions. However, Christian has been sacked eight times so far. While not a huge deal yet, it's important that he learns the value of throwing the ball away in the right situation. Sometimes an incomplete pass is the right play. 

    That should come with experience and coaching. 


Efficiently Spread the Ball Around

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    There's no doubt that Allen Robinson is Hack's favorite target, and there's nothing wrong with that. Robinson is the best receiver in the conference and one of the best in the country. 

    But he's not the only weapon at Hackenberg's disposal.

    Entering the rainy Kent State game, Hackenberg had completed 23 of 24 passes intended for Robinson, which is a staggering 98 percent completion rate. When throwing to the rest of the team, he completed just 42 of 65 passes (65 percent).

    With Robinson attracting so much attention, it should open opportunities for other receivers to benefit from single coverage, and Hackenberg needs to capitalize. 

Utilize the Tight Ends

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    Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    It's no secret that Bill O'Brien's offense provides opportunities for tight ends. 

    In 2012, Penn State tight ends totaled 81 catches and 10 touchdowns. With a third of the 2013 season in the books, the tight ends have just 21 catches and not a single touchdown reception. 

    Kyle Carter suffered an early injury, and Adam Breneman is adjusting to the college game, but the talent is undeniable. Not to mention, the average height of Penn State's tight ends hovers right around 6'5". Big targets like that are usually extra-inviting to young quarterbacks. 

Step Up Against Competition

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    Against the two best defenses he has faced, Hackenberg has thrown for 540 combined yards and three touchdowns, which is plenty. 

    But it isn't going to get any easier. 

    Michigan has had their struggles, but they have better athletes on defense than any other defense Hack has seen so far. That goes the same for Ohio State, Wisconsin and even Nebraska. His decision-making will become more crucial as the season progresses, and teams begin to learn his tendencies. 

    All of the tools are there. Hack has terrific poise and an elite arm. He slides in the pocket as well as anyone. He is able to go through progressions on long pass plays, and he has already been given the ability to make changes at the line of scrimmage. 

    His first true road test will come this weekend at Indiana, and the road only gets tougher from there.

    The ingredients are all in place for Hackenberg to grow into an elite college quarterback. The remainder of this season should paint a picture of just how soon that vision can become a reality. 


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