Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg said his biggest challenge when he arrived on the Penn State campus for the first time in June was "to handle all the expectations with being a quarterback at a program like Penn State."
Hackenberg did quite well dealing with those expectations, starting all of the Nittany Lions' 12 games and finishing his first season ranked second in the Big Ten Conference in completions. He was 0.5 yards from ranking second in passing (246.2 per game), and was one shy of the Big Ten lead with 20 touchdown passes.
On Tuesday night, in what had to be a slam dunk, Hackenberg was named winner of the Thompson-Randle El Award as the Big Ten's freshman of the year. He is the second straight Nittany Lion to win the award, with defensive end and Northeast High graduate Deion Barnes taking it last year.
Interviewed on the Big Ten Network, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hackenberg said it seemed like a daunting task trying to pick up head coach Bill O'Brien's offense when he arrived from Palmyra, Va., after playing at Fork Union Military Academy.
"You don't really understand the bigness of it," he said. "I was playing small high school football in central Virginia last year, so stepping into this type of environment was definitely different. But I think that the more and more you experienced it each week, you sort of start to understand and grasp how big it is."
Hackenberg, who was named Big Ten freshman of the week five times, completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. He threw 10 interceptions.
He saved perhaps his best performance of the season for last, passing for 339 yards and four touchdowns in the Nittany Lions' 31-24 upset at Wisconsin that enabled the team to finish with a 7-5 record.
Hackenberg said that Penn State's four-overtime win in October over Michigan was "spectacular" but that the Wisconsin game probably was the most memorable.
"We were able to send the seniors out with a win, and that meant a lot to me," he said. "Those guys meant a lot for me and the team and the program as well, and to send them out right was big for us."
Hackenberg finished with the third-highest total of passing yards in a season by a Penn State quarterback. He had nine games with more than 200 passing yards, and four games with more than 300 yards.
"I definitely feel like I grew with the mental aspects of the position - recognizing coverages and defenses," he said. "Then that translates to how the operation of the offense is. So I felt like each week, I got more comfortable with how to operate the run game and then how to counteract that with the passing game - when to run, when to pass."
Hackenberg was the fourth Penn State player to be honored by the Big Ten in the postseason. His favorite target, junior Allen Robinson, was named the conference's receiver of the year for the second season in a row.
Robinson, guard John Urschel, and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones made the all-Big Ten first team.