Christian Hackenberg is in the midst of conquering the “freshman wall.”
Hackenberg is 18 years old and has thrown more passes (306) than anyone in the Big Ten — more passes already than he had in a season at any level.
Plus, there also was who-knows-how-many passes he threw in preseason practice combined with weeks of players-only sessions with his receivers.
True freshmen expected to fill key roles often are mentally and physically worn by November, after going through a longer and tougher fall grind than ever before.
“I think every true freshman definitely hits that wall. Everyone does,” said head coach Bill O’Brien. “I think the ones who are able to climb that wall, so to speak, are the ones able to come out and focus on football even if they are not having such a great practice or they don’t feel very well or maybe they had a touch exam schedule that day.”
As for Hackenberg, he enjoyed one of his best practices of the season on Monday, O’Brien said. That came after a lackluster passing day (14-of-25, 163 yards) in the loss at Minnesota. He also fumbled away a snap at the 1 yard line.
“Like I’ve always said, everything he sees in college football he’s seeing for the first time, and I just thought that yesterday in practice there were things that started to click for him, so let’s see what happens (this week),” O’Brien said.
“In some regard, it’s the same for all the freshmen. We feel really good about our freshman class.”
Hackenberg has thrown for 2,187 yards and averages 243 yards per game, both second-best in the Big Ten. He also has thrown 13 touchdown passes, eight interceptions and has completed 58.2 percent of his passes — which is near the bottom of the league.
“Christian has, in many ways, improved every week,” O’Brien said.
He then offered an example from last week’s game. The Lions were driving the ball and faced a third down in Minnesota territory.
“We called a play that required a check. It required a check where he had to use the tools in his tool box to get the defense to show a little bit, and I’ve had guys at other places that could never do that. He did it. He checked the play, got us into the right play, but we couldn’t complete the pass.
“So, we’ve got to say, ‘OK, we got that step done.’ It’s all part of teaching. We got that step accomplished, now we’ve got to execute all the way through.”
O’Brien also praised his young quarterback for a throw he made on a curl route to receiver Matt Zanelatto during a two-minute drive.
“Some of the deep balls that we didn’t come down with were really good throws. Other throws where we run some of our little bunch stuff, he’s got to understand there’s a little touch on that pass. That’s all part of being a young quarterback.
“I look at those things and say, ‘He got better at that last night. He’s going to get better at that against Purdue and maybe even better against Nebraska and then better against Wisconsin. I believe that. I really believe in this kid.”