Football

State of Penn State: Even after scandal, O’Brien reloads with 5-star quarterback Hackenberg

Photo Courtesy of The Daily Collegian

Bill O’Brien took over for Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2012. Due to NCAA sanctions, the Nittany Lions will not be bowl eligible for another three seasons. Regardless, O’Brien has kept the program’s recruiting prowess intact.

There had to be some hesitancy. Christian Hackenberg knew what he could be up against at Penn State — perpetual scrutiny, a thinner supporting cast and three seasons without postseason play.

But it’s still Penn State. There’s still the tradition of excellence. The Nittany Lions still play in front of hordes of adoring fans that remained steadfast through scandal and controversy.

That all sold the school to the quarterback, but even more important was the new man at the helm.

“He wanted to play for Bill O’Brien,” said former Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy head coach Micky Sullivan, who coached Hackenberg at the high school.

Hackenberg hadn’t even been on the radar when former head coach Joe Paterno was finishing up at PSU. It wasn’t until O’Brien was hired and made Hackenberg one of his first recruiting priorities that Penn State would find its eventual quarterback of the future.

In less than two months a rookie head coach sold a program embroiled in scandal to the No. 2 quarterback recruit in the nation.

“Bill O’Brien’s a special guy,” Sullivan said. “I’m very impressed with the things he does, the way he handles himself.”

Lining up under center against Syracuse on Saturday could be Hackenberg, who was one of O’Brien’s top priorities when the coach first arrived on campus. Hackenberg, a true freshman quarterback and Penn State’s first five-star commit after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, could make the first start of his career when the Nittany Lions play the Orange at 3:30 p.m. at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

With the idealistic quarterback — Hackenberg’s 6-foot-4 build fits the Nittany Lions’ prostyle offense to perfection — and the mastermind head coach, PSU hasn’t missed a beat. It would have been bowl-eligible last season and is receiving votes in the preseason AP Top 25 this year.

For a moment, though, everything could have fallen apart in the wake of the scandal.

Running back Silas Redd, who played two years for Penn State, was the first one to go. He departed for Southern California and it seemed more would follow in droves.

But most stuck with it. And then the recruits started to come.

Hackenberg was the first, but Adam Breneman, the No. 2 tight end in the country, joined him nine days later. And, most importantly, they stuck with it even after sanctions came down.

“I think it says something about the type of character that guy had and all the other recruits that we had that held on to their commitment despite the sanctions,” guard John Urschel said. “It’s a great place for football and there’s something special here and I think they recognize that, and I think that’s why they kept their commitments.”

Hackenberg committed after the scandal broke. But before sanctions came down, for a time, he had to rethink his decision.

He sat down with Sullivan and his family and went through the whole litany of pros and cons. Hackenberg’s answer, Sullivan said: “I want to go there.”

“Was I surprised that he stuck with it? No. Was there wavering or questioning? I think at times, at least early on, we looked,” Sullivan said. “You know, ‘OK, what are we going to do? Do you really want to do this?’ And Christian always said, ‘I want to go to Penn State.’”

Hackenberg was not available to comment because O’Brien does not allow freshmen to talk to the media.

Hackenberg only arrived at PSU this summer, but immediately he’s been thrown into the fire, competing for the starting quarterback job at a Big 10 school. He relishes the spotlight, Sullivan said. Fork Union opened the season in his senior year with a game televised on ESPN. His year ended with the Under Armour All-America Game.

People don’t talk as much about the scandal now as much as they did last year.

“It’s nice to not have the media be talking about things other than football,” Urschel said.

But Hackenberg sticking with his commitment will inevitably once again thrust him into the spotlight.

“That just shows the type of guy that he is, shows his character and the things that matter to him the most,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “Now that he’s here, he’s in a battle for that quarterback spot.”

But Hackenberg can only carry the Nittany Lions so far. In a best-case scenario — and assuming he doesn’t redshirt — he will play in one bowl game in his career. If he leaves early, he will never carry them to the postseason.

So his arrival is as much symbolic as it is tangible. PSU has three more years before it can again be the power it once was. Once that time passes, the Nittany Lions will be in good hands.

“As for the future,” Willis said, “as long as Penn State football keeps doing what it’s doing, then we should be fine.”

  • Tom Beatty

    He didn’t come for bowl games, he came for O’Brien. I can’t say that I blame him. Look what O’Brien did with last years quarterback at Penn State. Amazing.

  • carolineredbrook

    Sad that this young man couldn’t find an untainted school to play for.

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