Like elite football facilities or a nine-figure salary, Penn State’s sophomore-to-be quarterback was their most enticing bargaining chip available when the school was trying to fill its head coaching vacancy this offseason. Just how good was he as a true freshman to earn that status? Good enough to be the best prospect at his position since Andrew Luck?
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports
THE label has been tossed around frequently over the years, rehashed and reused and repeated until it has effectively lost any meaning, but there have been three points in NFL history in which the “can’t-miss” mark was accurately placed on a quarterback prospect at a young age, spaced roughly a decade-and-a-half apart. Each signified the rare occasion when old-school scouts and progressive draftniks alike converge in mellifluous fashion and drop their agendas to gush over a prodigal passer that will alter the league’s landscape.
The premier talent in this trio was identifiable early on in their college careers. Despite being mired in a 2-7 junior season at Stanford, the 49ers’ director of scouting said of John Elway in 1981, “I’ve been in this business 20 years, and I’d have to say [he] is the best I’ve ever seen.” UCLA head coach Terry Donahue once laughed at the comparison between the Cardinal legend and Ohio State All-American Art Schlichter, that year’s No. 4 pick in the draft — “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. If you ask me who I’d least like to face, it’s John Elway.” When describing Peyton Manning’s draft stock as a sophomore, Mississippi State defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn famously remarked, “Florida’s Danny Wuerffel is a good college quarterback. Peyton is a good pro quarterback. Right now.” In the summer of 2010, analyst David Norrie said that Andrew Luck was “A quarterback talent that comes along once every six or seven years at this level… Midway through last season I was convinced he was the best quarterback in the country.”
To put that claim in perspective, Luck threw for 2,575 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2009 as the Dick Grayson to Toby Gerhart’s Bruce Wayne, a memorable year that played host to the final seasons of All-American passers like Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, and Tim Tebow.
Hyperbolic or not, Norrie’s praise and the rest of that acclamation hardly proved to be exaggerated. Elway, Manning, and Luck — aside from a brief flirtation among GMs with Ryan Leaf’s right arm — ended up as shoe-in No. 1 overall picks while serving as pillars for the “franchise quarterback” moniker that one hears so often in April. Physical talent, mechanical soundness, world-class football acumen and calculated demeanors that win as many press conferences as they do games on the field… all necessary components this talented triumvirate possessed in their respective times in college. It was as evident to armchair athletes as it was to seasoned scouts.
IT is a daunting task to even begin searching for a prospect that can approach these standards. It requires you to not turn off the tape at the first overzealous interception you see fly into the hands of a cornerback, forcing yourself to remember that Manning threw those every now and then as a youngster and that even the brilliant Luck forced some truly dumbass passes. It’s fine. It happens. But it narrows your search down to the physical elite, as Manning and Luck had prototypical, lab-engineered body size and Elway owned what was anecdotally one of the strongest arms in history, and it requires you to look for a quarterback that is displaying an advanced understanding of the game as a teenager. A lofty standard, to be sure, but this a lofty class we’re dealing with. As in, like, the three-best quarterback prospects in NFL history.
If the direction of this piece wasn’t obvious by now, I think we can maybe possibly sorta kinda be looking at the next can’t-miss kid to come out of the college ranks. Bear with me now. He turned 19 on February 14, but Christian Hackenberg is already really good at football. He was downright sensational for a true freshman that didn’t play a down of spring practice. He’s 76 inches and 220 pounds of future first-round goodness, with a cannon attached to his shoulder and the pocket presence of a player three years his senior. His play fakes are as advanced at they are aesthetically pleasing for a signal-caller at his stage in development.
Speaking superficially, Hackenberg’s already got the dashing good looks and the puff piece-friendly background — refusing to decommit from Penn State like everyone expected him to after the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions on the school — that will make him an ESPN darling and a mainstay on your television screens every fall as he progresses in age and skill. I believe the only reason the former five-star prospect isn’t already a household name is because of Johnny Manziel’s TMZ-like coverage and Jameis Winston’s national championship run-slash-averted rape fiasco; his time was being given to adolescents that were better and more interesting than him, although Luck saw only a fraction of the face time in 2009 when Gerhart was ramming, rumbling, sprinting, and stumbling in 28 rushing touchdowns for a second-place Heisman finish.
But just how good was Hackenberg in 2013? Why am I lavishing praise on a player that was tied for forty-third nationally in touchdown tosses and thirty-eighth in passing yardage?
Well, he put together what was probably one of the finest seasons ever compiled by a true freshman quarterback. And when taking into account a few other things, it may be the most impressive in the recent history of college football.
Here is — to the best of my knowledge (information prior to 2008 was difficult to attain) — every freshman that led their team in pass attempts in the last ten years, along with their common stat line, that had a QB rating near Hackenberg’s or was dealt a similar workload.*
|Jared Goff, Cal (2013)||320||531||60.3||3,508||6.61||18||10||32||123.2|
|Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2013)||231||392||58.9||2,955||7.54||20||10||21||134.0|
|Davis Webb, Texas Tech (2013)||226||361||62.2||2,718||7.53||20||9||7||139.1|
|Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (2011)||191||296||64.5||2,129||7.19||14||12||33||132.4|
|Braxton Miller, OSU (2011)||85||157||54.1||1,159||7.38||13||4||39||138.4|
|Tyler Bray, Tennessee (2010)||125||224||55.8||1,849||8.25||18||10||16||142.7|
|Chas Todd, Rutgers (2010)||123||223||55.2||1,637||7.34||11||7||45||126.8|
|Jeff Godfrey, UCF (2010)||159||238||66.8||2,159||9.07||13||8||18||154.3|
|Matt Barkley, USC (2009)||211||352||59.9||2,735||7.77||15||14||17||131.3|
|Tom Savage, Rutgers (2009)||149||285||52.3||2,211||7.76||14||7||35||128.7|
|Bo Levi Mitchell, SMU (2008)||236||410||57.6||2,865||6.99||24||23||26||124.4|
|Terrelle Pryor, OSU (2008)||100||165||60.6||1,311||7.95||12||4||21||146.5|
|Robert Griffin III, Baylor (2008)||160||267||59.9||2,091||7.83||15||3||28||142.0|
|Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame (2007)||138||245||56.3||1,254||5.12||7||6||35||103.8|
|Nate Davis, Ball State (2006)||150||244||61.5||1,975||8.09||18||8||13||147.3|
|Josh Freeman, Kansas State (2006)||140||270||51.9||1,780||6.59||6||15||25||103.5|
|Matthew Stafford, Georgia (2006)||135||256||52.7||1,749||6.83||7||13||12||109.0|
|Erik Ainge, Tennessee (2004)||109||198||55.1||1,452||7.33||17||9||5||135.9|
|Chad Henne, Michigan (2004)||240||399||60.2||2,743||6.87||25||12||29||132.6|
After giving this list a once-over, you’ll find a lot of guys who eventually played in the NFL. But even though earning the starting job as a freshman is certainly a positive sign for your budding skill level, it doesn’t guarantee sustained success. Several players were replaced in the very next season (see footnotes), and one even switched positions (Godfrey).
But these numbers don’t do a lot for me, or at least not with the present sample sizes. Only six quarterbacks threw in excess of 300 passes in that first year, and even fewer were the starters from week one through the final game. Touchdown and interception totals are notoriously fickle in a data pool this shallow, and for that reason I think it’s best to bring in more revealing statistics — ones that do a better job of measuring the value of each pass these lads attempted.
Touchdown Percentage (TD%) and Interception Percentage (INT%) should be self-explanatory in their computation, merely being the totals of each divided by the number of passes thrown, and Sack Percentage is almost identical, dividing the number of sacks taken by the number of drop backs (pass attempts plus sacks). Adjusted Yards Per Attempt (AY/A) brings interceptions into the equation and will harm risk-takers more than their cautious counterparts. Net Yards Per Passing Attempt (NY/A) is the total yardage a quarterback produced per play when factoring in the amount lost from sacks; Adjusted Net Yards Per Passing Attempt (ANY/A) is an amalgamation of AY/A and NY/A.
Many of these statistics were pioneered by Pro Football Reference in their commendable endeavor of more accurately quantifying the value of an NFL quarterback on a play-by-play basis. Their equations are presented below, as is an updated version of the earlier list.**
TD% = (passing touchdowns)/(passing attempts)
INT% = (passing interceptions)/(passing attempts)
AY/A = (passing yards + (passing touchdowns x 20) – (interceptions x 45)/(passing attempts)
Sk% = (times sacked)/(passing attempts + times sacked)
NY/A = (passing yards – sack yards)/(passing attempts + times sacked)
ANY/A = (passing yards + (passing touchdowns x 20) – (interceptions x 45) – sack yards)/(passing attempts + times sacked)
|Jared Goff, Cal (2013)||3.4||1.9||6.44||5.7||5.66||5.50|
|Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2013)||5.1||2.5||7.41||5.1||6.65||6.53|
|Davis Webb, Texas Tech (2013)||5.5||2.5||7.52||1.9||7.20||7.18|
|Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (2011)||4.7||4.1||6.31||10.0||5.47||4.68|
|Braxton Miller, OSU (2011)||8.3||2.5||7.89||19.9||3.92||4.33|
|Tyler Bray, Tennessee (2010)||8.0||4.5||7.85||6.7||7.04||6.66|
|Chas Todd, Rutgers (2010)||4.9||3.1||6.91||16.8||4.43||4.07|
|Jeff Godfrey, UCF (2010)||5.5||3.4||8.65||7.0||7.73||7.34|
|Matt Barkley, USC (2009)||4.3||4.0||6.83||4.6||6.95||6.06|
|Tom Savage, Rutgers (2009)||4.9||2.5||7.64||11.1||5.91||5.80|
|Bo Levi Mitchell, SMU (2008)||5.9||5.6||5.63||6.0||5.97||4.70|
|Terrelle Pryor, OSU (2008)||7.3||2.4||8.31||11.3||5.92||6.24|
|Robert Griffin III, Baylor (2008)||5.6||1.1||8.45||9.5||6.14||6.70|
|Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame (2007)||2.9||2.4||4.59||12.5||3.23||2.76|
|Nate Davis, Ball State (2006)||7.4||3.3||8.09||5.1||7.18||7.18|
|Josh Freeman, Kansas State (2006)||2.2||5.6||4.54||8.5||5.19||3.31|
|Matthew Stafford, Georgia (2006)||2.7||5.1||5.09||4.5||6.08||4.42|
|Erik Ainge, Tennessee (2004)||8.6||4.5||7.00||2.5||6.91||6.59|
|Chad Henne, Michigan (2004)||6.3||3.0||6.74||6.8||5.73||5.64|
If you don’t want to analyze every digit, here are a few snap reactions:
1. JESUS FUCKING CHRIST Jimmy Clausen was bad. That was one of the worst Notre Dame teams in history — their nine losses were a school record, in fact — and quarterback play was a big reason. Seriously, what this tells you is that the No. 1 recruit in the country averaged 2.76 yards-per-play on his dropbacks. The NFL average among quarterbacks was 5.9 this past season, for reference, and even Vinny Testaverde’s 35-interception stinker in 1988 registered a 3.27.
2. Assuming you knew of Nate Davis as every blogger’s man crush leading up to the 2009 NFL Draft, Jeffrey Godfrey was the best true freshman that no one really heard of. That’s probably because he eventually lost his job to the classmate he had forced UCF to redshirt in 2010, a certain someone who is projected to be a top-ten pick in two months’ time.
3. Predictably, and despite his impressive Y/A mark that would lead you to think he was efficient, NY/A and ANY/A hate Braxton Miller. These stats don’t take into account the rushing numbers that guys like Miller, Griffin, and Pryor provided, but you cannot take a sack on one-fifth of your drop backs and be labeled as anything resembling an efficient passer.
4. That harmful trait — the propensity to take a sack instead of throwing the ball away — also kept Terrelle Pryor from registering one of the best freshman seasons in history. I’m sure he was just fine with the Big Ten Conference title, of course.
5. Freeman somehow posted a better NY/A in his awful freshman campaign than he did last season with the Buccaneers and Vikings.
Here are the top years ANY/A-wise and where Hackenberg fell in relation. In theory, these were the quarterbacks that provided the most value to their team per passing play over the course of the season:
|Robert Griffin III||6.70|
I mentioned earlier that Hackenberg’s season was the most impressive when placed in context. Every other quarterback on this list was an early enrollee that was able to participate in weight training as soon as January and compete every day of spring practice, but Hackenberg didn’t throw his first pass as a Nittany Lion until June. It is exceedingly rare for a freshman to win the starting job without a semester under his belt on campus or several months in a college weight room, but Hackenberg ripped it out of Tyler Ferguson’s hands in a matter of weeks. Ferguson, a highly touted junior college transfer that had been expected by most in Happy Valley to start in 2013, has already packed his bags and left town for Louisville, knowing better than anyone that Hackenberg’s spot is secure for as long as he wants it. And Penn State almost certainly ran the most complex system of every offense the seven of these quarterbacks played in, as QB aficionado and now-Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien required Hackenberg to learn under center and go through reads in an intricate progression system like any grizzled upperclassman; meanwhile Davis, Godfrey, Griffin, and Webb played exclusively in shotgun spread offenses.
Hackenberg and Godfrey were the only players on this list to grade out as above the true freshman average in all six advanced statistics, although Godfrey only marginally did so in INT% and Sk% (3.4 to 3.5 and 7.0 to 7.1, respectively).
I can crunch numbers until my retinas are sufficiently worthless, but it is obvious that more people care about Hackenberg’s future than what he did to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year. So what lies ahead?
The 2014 NFL Draft will likely have at least three first-round selections at quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, and Johnny Manziel. Winston is the odds-on favorite to go first overall in 2015, and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota will be his prime competition at that slot. I think Hackenberg could be a better NFL prospect than all five.
A Heisman campaign could come as early as this fall. There is plenty of time to build up steam for the hype train, but the most noted quarterback guru in amateur football has already dropped the Luck comparison (a collation that may one day become as tired and dreaded as the MJ label for basketball wings or the never-ending quest for “The Next One” in hockey). Elite 11 mentor Trent Dilfer may have been a shitty signal-caller in the pros, but he did essentially predict the final drive of the 2014 BCS National Championship Game (seriously, this was eery) and is on record calling Hackenberg a “Troy Aikman clone”. Although O’Brien has left for the pros along with a Biletnikoff-worthy receiver in Allen Robinson, Hackenberg returns every member of the deepest tight end stable in college football as well as Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch in the backfield, who ran for clips of 5.1 and 6.0 per carry in 2013. Geno Lewis is projected to be a stud as the new number-one option in the passing game, and Penn State signed a trio of four-star receivers in the Class of 2014.
Collate all of that with the NCAA deciding in September to renege on the Lions’ scholarship reduction, and it can safely be said that the cupboard was left stocked for James Franklin on offense, a side of the ball he himself knows well from his time as one of the country’s hottest up-and-coming coordinators at Maryland. Hackenberg’s opinion reportedly weighed heavily on the school throughout the coaching search. There was no replacing O’Brien’s brain, but hiring a dud like Greg Schiano may have risked losing their quarterback to a team-crushing transfer. Regents fretted, board members listened.
Hackenberg is the closest thing to a franchise quarterback at the college level, both in terms of what he has already meant for the program and what he means for its future, just like Luck once did when he spurned a hundred-some offers to play for a team that went 1-11 in his senior year of high school. Luck lost Jim Harbaugh to the NFL during his college career and did not lose a step in his ascent to becoming the best quarterback prospect in the last thirty years.
And if Christian Hackenberg is half the player that I think he is, the young man may be destined for something similar.
* For brevity’s sake, some quarterbacks were excluded from the list but were factored into the freshman average. These included 2012’s Perry Hills, Philip Nelson, Jalen Whitlow and Travis Wilson, 2011’s David Ash, 2010’s Tanner Price and Chase Rettig, 2009’s Nick Florence and Spencer Keith, and 2006’s Mitch Mustain.
** Sack yardage is not readily available for college quarterbacks like it is their NFL counterparts, so I used ten yards per sack when calculating NY/A and ANY/A.
Brandon Magner (@Brandon Magner) is a recent graduate of The University of Kentucky and will begin attending one of its graduate programs in June.