Bill O’Brien

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Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg mulling NFL Draft

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Before the start of the 2015 college football season, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was thought to be one of the top pro prospects in the NFL Draft pool in 2016 with the assumption he would be leaving Penn State with one final year of eligibility left unused. His draft stock may have dipped as a result of his performance on the field this season, his second sub par showing under James Franklin since his brilliant freshman career under Bill O’Brien, but the time to make a decision looms. Hackenberg, along with standout defensive lineman Austin Johnson are among the many underclassmen waiting to see what the NFL Draft advisory board has to say about their potential NFL Draft expectations in 2016.

“We want to have a plan and be organized with whatever we decide,” Franklin said. “It’s not going to be someone coming out and throwing something out midweek on a tweet. It’s going to be something we do together and do it the way they want it to be done.”

Hackenberg had a relatively rough season behind a weak offensive line for a second straight fall, which played a role in his less-than-spectacular stats this season. He was to blame for some of his lower moments though, but scouts at the NFL level will take many things into consideration when evaluating Hackenberg. When he’s on, he’s darn good. He just hasn’t been on, or had the opportunity to be on, as often as most would have liked to see. Scouts may also take into consideration how he performed behind a more stable offensive line under an NFL coach like O’Brien.

“I think it’s obviously going to be a tool in that decision when that time comes. But again, right now I think it’s really just going down and making sure we execute against Georgia,” Hackenberg said.

While the perception of Hackenberg may have taken a fall, the rise of Johnson has not gone unnoticed, although it may have been overshadowed. Playing on the same defensive line as award-winning Carl Nassib, Johnson’s improvement this season has allowed him to enter the NFL Draft conversation to some degree. Johnson had 119 tackles and 6.5 sacks the past two years.

Christian Hackenberg not thinking about NFL just yet

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This weekend Penn State will play its final home game of the season against Jim Harbaugh, Jabrill Peppers and the surging Michigan Wolverines. As is typically the case around college football, the last home game of the year will see a proper sendoff to Penn State’s seniors, the first class signed by former Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien. Though not a senior, many suspect this could also be the final home game for quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He says that thought has not crossed his mind.

Hackenberg shined as a freshman under O’Brien but has struggled at times in the past two seasons under James Franklin. Some still see potential in Hackenberg as an NFL prospect, but his stock and likelihood of being a potential draft pick has dropped considerably since the start of the season as a lack of progress as a passer has been apparent. Josh Norris of RotoWorld currently ranks Hackenberg as the sixth top quarterback prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft, assuming Hackenberg passes on his final season in State College. Hackenberg is now behind players like Paxton Lynch of Memphis, Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State and Carson Wentz of North Dakota State. Other quarterbacks previously in the discussion for top quarterback options along with Hackenberg, Cal’s Jared Goff and Michigan State’s Connor Cook, are also both ahead of Penn State’s best quarterback prospect since Kerry Collins.

If Hackenberg does not declare early for the NFL Draft, there are those who believe his next best option might be to transfer to another school to play in a system more likely to use his skill set in a more preferable way. For now at least, Hackenberg’s on the record suggesting he has every intention on returning to Penn State for his fourth and final year of eligibility in 2016.

Bill O’Brien and Maryland rumor milling

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Former Penn State head coach and current head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans Bill O’Brien could potentially be on his way out of Houston as soon as this season, depending upon whom you trust in the world of the NFL. Could that put O’Brien back on the market for any coaching job at the college level, specifically Maryland?

Over the weekend O’Brien’s name was drug into the Maryland coaching rumor mill by CBS Sports‘ Jason La Canfora, who covers the NFL. The logic behind the story suggested the growing power struggle between O’Brien and Texans management could lead to a divorce that would see O’Brien pack his bags and leave Houston after just two seasons on the job. That would be unfortunate for the Texans, who have yet to draft a franchise quarterback for a head coach who is known for his quarterback coaching (O’Brien made Matt McGloin a record-setting quarterback at Penn State after all, and Christian Hackenberg looked better as a freshman than his last 1.5 seasons under James Franklin).

With a small handful of exceptions, no NFL head coach voluntarily will leave his job to take on a college coaching job. When they do, they go to USC (Pete Carroll) or Alabama (Nick Saban). OK, or Arkansas (Bobby Petrino). Nobody is leaving an NFL head coaching job for Maryland. Sorry Terps.

NFL coaching rumors often leave me cracking up, and this one is no exception. Sometimes there are coaching rumors that defy all real logic when you actually sit down to think about it, and Bill O’Brien leaving the NFL to take on the Maryland coaching job is about as flimsy as a west french fry. Previously I have suggested there are plenty of reasons why the Maryland job is actually an attractive one for a number of coaches, but O’Brien is not likely to be one in that realistic list of candidates. Per Pro Football Talk, noted Houston sportswriter John McClain of the Houston Chronicle says O’Brien has no interest in the job at Maryland anyway.

Never say never when it comes to coaching rumors, but there is very little chance O’Brien will be back in the Big Ten next season.

Three years after the NCAA hammer, Penn State still alive and well

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Three summers ago Penn State’s football program was thought to be wiped as much from existence as a program can get this side of the SMU death penalty. The NCAA dropped a three-ton anvil on the program following the release of the Freeh Report related to the university’s handling of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and his sickening crimes against children both on and off campus; a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, 112 victories vacated, a loss of scholarships ultimately limiting the program to 65 available scholarships instead of the NCAA limit of 85, five years of probation and the possibility of further NCAA investigations following criminal proceedings related to Penn State officials. A lot has changed since that July morning in 2012. Through it all, Penn State has managed to not only survive but also find a path moving forward with great promise.

NCAA president Mark Emmert suggested Penn State had a culture problem on its hands, where the football way of life trumped all other facets of the university. Some applauded Emmert and the NCAA for going all in on Penn State. Others believed the NCAA should have gone further. Others felt it was too harsh a punishment or the NCAA had no jurisdiction on the Penn State shortcomings. Everyone had a side on this subject, and many have stuck to those opinions over the years. Whatever your opinion was at the time, things looked bleak for the future of Penn State football.

The NCAA assigned former Senator George Mitchell to monitor and keep tabs on Penn State by way of an annual progress report. Through Mitchell’s reports, the NCAA saw fit to cut back on some of the sanctions dropped on the program. First the NCAA handed back a handful of scholarships. It later lifted all scholarship restrictions as well as the final two years of the postseason ban. Finally, the program was relieved of all NCAA sanction terms earlier this year with all vacated wins going back on the books, although Penn State remained committed to fulfilling its intent to pay off the $60 million fine, with that money being put to good use to promote the awareness of child and sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.

New head coach Bill O’Brien, the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, served admirably in his role as head coach and should someday be recognized for the job he did in his two years in State College. O’Brien took over a program some deemed toxic and was soon hampered even more with the sanctions. O’Brien could have whined about the situation left and right, but instead he kept the program moving forward with whatever players chose to stay with him. Yes, some players took advantage fo a free transfer opportunity from the sanctions (most notably running back Silas Redd to USC), and some recruits opted to go elsewhere. O’Brien worked with what he had, and decided to fight for the players who remained committed. Names were placed on the jerseys to recognize those who stayed. Some schools say those who stay will be champions. Penn State’s 2012 squad may not have won a championship, but it was honored on the inside of Beaver Stadium alongside past memorable teams like the Big Ten champions of 2005 and 2008, the undefeated 1994 team and the national championship squads of the 1980s. Penn State’s 2012 team had a championship mentality and personality.

O’Brien left after two years at Penn State to become the head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans. O’Brien always seemed like a coach looking for an NFL opportunity, and few begrudge him for leaving the program when he did. This is because he made sure the program would be as ready to take the next steps forward as possible under grave circumstances. Penn State hired Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, who is now in the midst of doing just that with a full allotment of scholarships and no sanctions to work around. Depth is rebuilding, and the pride in the program remains. It may even be stronger than ever before, as the football program has ironically played a role in bringing the community together in a new way. This season Penn State will strip the names off the jerseys in another show of moving forward while embracing the tradition of the program.

Penn State’s football program may very well have been the product of a football culture gone overboard to some degree, but it also plays a role in the rebuilding the faith of a fractured community. There is still work to be done in State College, Pennsylvania and the pains suffered by the victims of Sandusky may never heal, but the football program can serve as an outlet to promote awareness of child and sexual abuse in the community. Lessons can be learned from the Penn State saga, and ultimately that is more valuable than any win experienced on the field.

James Franklin says Penn State is catching up in recruiting

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The NCAA dropped a hammer on Penn State’s recruiting efforts juts three summers ago. Despite lifting it and easing back the impact of the sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State is still attempting to catch up to be able to compete in conference against the juggernaut that is Ohio State. It is a reality that Penn State head coach James Franklin is aware of and uses as a bit of caution to temper expectations for the Nittany Lions in 2015.

Probably in three years we’ll get back to having not only numbers that make more sense, but also how it’s spread out,” Franklin said when discussing Penn State’s scholarship distribution at this point in time, per Greg Pickel of PennLive.com. “That’s the other issue right now.”

As things stand at this point, Penn State is operating on either 81 or 82 scholarship players, Franklin outlined Tuesday. The NCAA released Penn State of any recruiting sanctions to allow the program to get back on track much sooner than initially anticipated in 2012 when the NCAA reduced Penn State’s total number of scholarships from the maximum of 85 down to 65. The NCAA slowly restored some of those scholarships in previous years and now has lifted all aspects of the sanctions against the program.

But just because Penn State can operate at close to full strength in terms of scholarships, does not mean Penn State is on the same level as Ohio State or Michigan State. Penn State’s recruiting class of 2012 was stained by the Sandusky scandal before the sanctions were levied, and Bill O’Brien‘s first full recruiting cycle in 2013 had limited scholarships which prevented a chance to provide much depth (see the offensive line).

Franklin may have Penn State heading in a positive direction despite a rough debut season in State College, but it will be another year or two before Penn State will realistically have any chance to entertain Big Ten championship dreams.