Playing quarterback isn't merely about avoiding the rush and delivering the ball on time. The quarterback must know the playbook inside and out, know the responsibilities of his teammates and know the way those teammates play, whether it's where the running back likes the handoff or how long it takes a wideout to come out of his break. The quarterback must orchestrate 11 moving parts -- even if those parts change by the week.
Hackenberg was pushed academically and athletically during his time at Fork Union Military Academy.
Christian Hackenberg, the five-star quarterback prospect from Palmyra, Va., who signed his letter of intent to play for Penn State, played his final three seasons of high school ball at Fork Union Military Academy, a school known for molding and producing some of the nation's top talent as well as fielding a roster that had massive turnover each season.
"I never knew what type of team I was going to have until two weeks before the first game," Hackenberg said.
College quarterbacks spend months working out with their receivers during the offseason to develop timing and chemistry. Hackenberg would typically enter the season after meeting some of his targets only days before.
"For him, one of the challenges of being the quarterback on that team was each year you might have a little bit of chemistry from the year before, but, generally, it was hard to have the same type of consistency," said Hackenberg's father, Erick. "You have to learn how to develop personal relationships with each of those kids in a short amount of time."
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Hackenberg had the frame and physical tools that made college coaches salivate. His time at Fork Union helped him hone the leadership abilities he will need to put those skills to maximum use.
Earning his teammates' trust and respect was never a problem for Hackenberg. Keeping his emotions in check wasn't always as easy.
"I flare up a lot," Hackenberg said. "I'm super competitive. I just grew up being competitive, and you have your ups and downs. Coach (Micky) Sullivan really leveled me out. It's about being a rock -- whether you're up a lot or down a lot, you still have to have the same type of attitude, every play, every snap."
Sullivan, Fork Union's longtime coach, was one of the main reasons Erick Hackenberg steered his son toward the school. Sullivan had coached Gary Steele, who was Erick's roommate and football teammate at the University of Virginia. Erick liked the way Sullivan's coaching style reminded him of some of the great high school coaches he had known while growing up in Pennsylvania.
The other reason was the academic structure the academy would provide. Hackenberg was a good student at Fluvanna County High School, where he spent his freshman year, but he admitted he could get solid grades without really applying himself. Erick wanted his son to study, and play, in an environment that did not allow students to merely get by.
"Knowing what's a good decision versus what's a bad decision and consistently make them," Erick said. "That was where he needed to be."
Hackenberg piled up 2,200 yards and 21 touchdown passes during his junior season but did not receive any interest from Penn State until Bill O'Brien took over the program last January. The two hit it off from the start.
"I really liked how down to earth he was," Hackenberg said. "You could sit and talk to him about anything. He and I got along in that aspect. He's a guy you don't have to talk about football with all the time. He's going to push you every day -- me, the whole team. That's the type of guy I like. I felt like my personality really clicked with his personality."
Both Erick and his wife, Nikki, who played volleyball for Lehigh, had gone through the college recruitment process themselves. They urged Christian to create a checklist of the things he was looking for in a school and make sure the school he picked met each criterion.
Midway through Hackenberg's trip to Penn State for a junior day last February, he elbowed his father, motioned to O'Brien and said, "This is it. This is the guy I want to play for."
But Erick didn't want his son to commit on the spot.
"I told him, 'If that same feeling is there a week from now, gotta run with it,'" he said. "'You have to come back off the high, the neatness of the visit, and let it sink in, think about it. If it's still right, then you go. … And that's what happened."
Hackenberg has already gotten close with many of his fellow 2013 signees. This summer, he'll join the rest of the Nittany Lions and once again learn to adapt to a new set of teammates. As he learns about them, he'll learn O'Brien's system -- all the parts of it.
"It's a great offense," he said. "It really gives the QB the keys to the show. You gotta make the decisions up at the line. It's like playing a mind game. Once I really get the grasp of everything that's going on, I think it'll be fun."
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