Throughout his 14-year career as an NFL linebacker, there were a number of times that Mike Vrabel lined up with the intent of applying pressure -- and sometimes more -- to a rookie quarterback.
Often times, the rookie signal caller would struggle, overwhelmed by both the moment and the aggressive nature of the Patriots’ defense. But on the rarest of Sundays -- like the one Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed in 2004, leading his Pittsburgh Steelers to a 34-20 victory over Vrabel’s Patriots -- the rookie would rise to the occasion, proving to everybody that he too belongs with the big boys.
It’s been three seasons since Vrabel traded in his No. 50 jersey for an Ohio State coaches polo, but the Buckeyes defensive line coach still isn’t ever quite sure what he’s getting when a first-year quarterback takes the field against his team. Ohio State has already faced a rookie quarterback once this season in California's Jared Goff, and will do so again on Saturday when Christian Hackenberg takes the field for Penn State.
And while we’ve only seen a small sample size from the Nittany Lions quarterback through six games this season, all indications are that he could join his Keystone State neighbor Roethlisberger in that special class of rookie quarterbacks.
“He's shown a lot of poise there,” Vrabel said of Hackenberg. “Throws the ball well. Has a strong arm. Good skill.”
The numbers back up Vrabel’s assessment.
Leading Penn State to a 4-2 record, the 6-4, 220-pound first-year player has completed 58.4 percent of his pass attempts, throwing for 1,672 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hackenberg’s effort in the Nittany Lions’ quadruple-overtime victory over Michigan on Oct. 12 looked years beyond his age, as the 18-year-old engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive with just 50 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into its first overtime.
Hackenberg’s game-tying drive didn’t come to the surprise of another former Patriot employee, Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien, who immediately noticed the maturity of the former five-star prospect when he was just 16-years-old.
“One of the things that has struck me about Christian since the day I met him, which was at junior day almost two years ago now, is his demeanor,” O’Brien said. “He's a calm guy. He's got a quiet confidence about him. He understands that it's football. It's football. It's a part of his life. It’s a big part.”
Beating the Wolverines in front of his own fans is one thing, but Hackenberg will be attacking a whole different type of animal on Saturday. Playing the nation’s fourth-ranked team at night, on the road, and on national television isn’t an easy task for any signal caller, let alone one playing in just the seventh game of his college career.
Nevertheless, O’Brien is confident that his quarterback already has the ability to tune out any unnecessary distractions he may encounter in Columbus.
“I mean, you're playing Ohio State in the Horseshoe. That's a great opportunity for everybody,” the second-year Penn State coach said. “But, I think when the game starts, everybody involved is really just focused on the game, not the 90,000 people, 100,000 people that are sitting in the stands. You have to deal with the noise and things like that, but you're just very focused on what your job is on that play and on the next play and on the next play. I think that's probably what he thinks about quite a bit.”
Of course, whether O’Brien’s prophecy is filled with more confidence or hope remains to be seen. But what Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer does know for certain is that if the Buckeyes fail to apply pressure to Hackenberg -- just as Vrabel’s Patriots struggled to do against Roethlisberger nearly nine years ago -- OSU could only be aiding Hackenberg’s growing reputation.
“He’s getting better and better as you would imagine a freshman would get better,” Meyer said. “Giving this guy time is a problem.”