FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The pocket quickly collapsed around Christian Hackenberg.
There was nowhere for the 6-4, 228-pound quarterback to run, no blockers to shield him from the barrage of questions coming his way. But with his back pressed against a wall in the middle of the Jets’ locker room, the rookie made the correct reads with the skill of a seasoned veteran.
He was guarded yet personable. Self-assured but also self-effacing. And the second- round draft pick remained poised under pressure during his introduction to the New York market.
The former Penn State quarterback has heard all of the knocks before: He’s inaccurate and unable to quickly read a defense. But Hackenberg has left his college career, and those criticisms, in the past.
“I’m here right now,” he said. “ . . . I kind of buried that, so it’s a great fresh start, and really excited about moving forward and doing what I need to do here.”
It’s far too early to determine whether Hackenberg will be this polished on the field someday. But he took his first step in that direction Friday as the Jets began their three-day rookie minicamp.
His arm strength was obvious. With ease, he delivered a 50-yard strike downfield to undrafted free-agent speedster Quenton Bundrage. But for every solid throw Hackenberg made, there were plenty of short and overthrown passes, too. There also were quite a few “sacks” behind a makeshift offensive line of inexperienced talent. But before the hour-long practice began, Hackenberg assured reporters that he isn’t worried about becoming the face of a franchise in need of a starting quarterback. Instead, he’s focused on “getting through this weekend.”
Coach Todd Bowles offered a tepid assessment on Day 1, saying the rookie quarterback was “healthy” and “he was fine.”
“You’re not looking to see anything,” he said, referring to rookie minicamp. “. . . Right now it’s about teaching what we do.”
Hackenberg, 21, fared well as a freshman in Bill O’Brien’s pro-style offense, throwing 20 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in 2013. But when O’Brien left Penn State to coach the Houston Texans, Hackenberg’s stats dipped. In the next two seasons, he had 28 touchdown passes and 21 picks.
Now he must prove he’s NFL material. But in order to do that, he has to “earn my stripes with the older guys.”
He knows there will be bumps in his journey to become an NFL starter. And in those moments, the spotlight will be brighter than ever. But adversity is nothing new for Hackenberg.
“It’s been good. Just getting used to it,” he said with a smile when asked about acclimating to the New York experience. “I’m sure I’ll take my lumps here and there and learn a little bit. But it’s been awesome.”