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Column: Hack making success routine

It only seems like Christian Hackenberg has done all of this before.

The Big Ten's leader in passing yards is still four months shy of his 19th birthday.

The touchdown darts to his wideouts, the quick scrambles out of trouble, the half-yard touchdown dives that tie the game and cap one of the most remarkable comeback drives in team history , the flood of cameras and microphones and tricky and bizarre questions he gets after the game, the conference and national awards that seem to roll in by the week -- this is new to him. All of it.

"Every time he sees something," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said, "it's basically the first time he's seeing it at the college level."

You have to force yourself to remember that, because Penn State's freshman quarterback is playing and acting like it's all part of a long-held routine.

Maybe, on some level, it is.

Hackenberg already owns the Penn State freshman record for season passing yards (1,672) -- and he's only played half the season. He's on pace to break the overall school record for passing yards set a year ago by Matt McGloin as well as wind up as the Big Ten leader in that category.

He didn't get to this point because he's 6-foot-4 or because he can advance the football half the length of the field with a quick flutter of his right arm. The games, the crowds, the opposing defenses are all new to him, yes, but the way he approaches them is not. The same determined mindset that values the process as much as the results is one he's had for years, the one that helped him shine on the field and handle a demanding class schedule at Fork Union, the one that helped him beat out Tyler Ferguson during preseason camp.

Yes, Hackenberg is seeing everything for the first time, but the more he can see between the games and how he processes that can help him be ready to absorb it when he does see it.

Freshmen are always asked what the primary difference is between the high school level and the college game, the biggest adjustment they have to make. Almost invariably, they say it's the speed of the game. That all 22 guys on the field are playing the way maybe only three or four played in any high school game can be overwhelming for linebackers or running backs. Imagine being the guy that is responsible for putting the entire offense in motion on every snap and handling that adjustment.

Hackenberg said that adapting to the new pace wasn't exactly a "concern" for him but he tried to be aware of it early in the season. He credits O'Brien with giving him easy reads and easy throws to help ease the transition but understands that it's an ongoing process.

"I still think that's an ever-changing part of the game," he said. "I don't think I'll be 100 percent comfortable until later on in the season, but I've gotten a lot more comfortable with that."

In addition to the weekly quarterback meetings he has with O'Brien and position coach Charlie Fisher, Hackenberg typically meets with O'Brien on Thursday and Friday afternoons for extra sessions.

"We just go over the game plan and how we're approaching the game -- what I need to do and what my role is in the offense that particular week," he said. "That's a big thing for me. It gets my mind right for Saturday."

Hackenberg has thrown six interceptions this season. He's missed open receivers by over- or under-throwing them or by not seeing them. He's taken some sacks he probably could have avoided and he's fumbled three times. He said he's focusing on getting out of the pocket more often and making more plays with his feet -- when the yards are there -- instead of always relying on his arm.

In that sense, he is a young quarterback. Learning from those mistakes and applying them to the next play without dwelling on them is one goal. Another is constant refinement, the slight adjustments to what might look like a flawless throwing motion to most fans or being able to make certain reads just a bit more quickly.

"We just always have to continue to improve with his accuracy and mechanics and knowledge of the offense, and I think he'll continue to do that," O'Brien said. "But I'm very pleased with where he is right now."

The quarterback, who is trying to think like his coach on game days, shares O'Brien's evaluation of his performance to date -- pleased with success, critical of the details, and never, ever satisfied.

"I'm happy where I'm at right now," Hackenberg said. "I just feel like there's always room for improvement in every aspect."

Improving is about the only thing Hackenberg is doing right now that isn't new.

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