FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Christian Hackenberg is under no illusions about where he stands. He’s the new kid on the block, the fourth-stringer behind two experienced quarterbacks and a recent draft pick. The Jets rookie is a long shot to see significant playing time this season.
But being a backup never has suited Hackenberg.
“I’ve never really accepted it because I’m still working,” the three-year starter at Penn State said Wednesday during a one-on-one interview with Newsday.
“If I accepted it, I’d be chilling. But I’m still trying to go out and work and get better, because, who knows? Two, three snaps away and I’m the guy. You know what I mean? So you have to continue to prepare as if you’re the starter.”
That job belongs to Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 12-year veteran the Jets re-signed to a one-year, $12-million deal. Behind him is the beleaguered Geno Smith, still vying to be the face of a franchise again. Then there is Bryce Petty, a 2015 fourth-rounder who’s eager to prove he’s still worthy of a roster spot.
But even with three guys ahead of him, Hackenberg believes his chance could come at any moment.
“You’re three snaps away. Realistically,” he said. “I try and stay in Fitz’s hip pocket whenever he’s in the film room. Geno, Bryce, whenever anyone’s in there, just try to put as much into it as I can. It’s a lot to learn.”
The 21-year-old is expected to get his first taste of NFL action Friday night, when the Jets face the Redskins in their second preseason game. Todd Bowles said “the plan” is to play Hackenberg. “We’ll see how it works out.”
A chance to show what he can do is all he has wanted.
“It’s tough for him right now,” Fitzpatrick said of Hackenberg, who has seen limited reps in practice. “He has always been the top dog everywhere he has been. This is a new role for him.”
The key to unlocking the rookie’s potential lies in consistency. On Wednesday, he showcased his strong arm, hitting rookie Chandler Worthy with a perfectly placed pass between two defenders. But he followed that up with some errant throws and a pick to safety Ronald Martin.
But according to Fitzpatrick, the 6-4, 228-pound Hackenberg is “a little more advanced mentally than most quarterbacks coming in.” He also said he has all of the traits of a quarterback you’d create playing a Madden video game — “the height, size, the arm strength and all that.”
Although Hackenberg wouldn’t characterize his transition to the NFL as “tough,” he acknowledged that acclimating to a new environment, new building, new team and a new system “just takes time to adjust to, no matter who you are.” But he’s kept the same mentality all the while.
“Give it 100 percent, and just make sure that you continue to ride that wave that’s always kind of going up, never taking too many steps back, but always continuing to get better,” he said. “And it’s really helped having guys around me who are supporting that, in the quarterback room specifically, but definitely outside of that. They want to see the best out of you.”
For years, the Jets organization has failed to provide fertile ground for young quarterbacks to grow. But Hackenberg said he didn’t feel uneasy being drafted by a team that didn’t have its quarterback situation resolved. Fitzpatrick re-signed on the first day of camp, and since then, Hackenberg has been in his ear.
He and Petty are tight, too, he said, despite their shared goal of being the Jets’ starter one day. “We both want to help this team in any way we can, we’re both really confident in what we can do,” Hackenberg said. “So we’ve really clicked from that sense and a character standpoint. So why not push each other? Why not try to get the best out of one another?”
The rookie also credited Smith for being “awesome, too,” adding that they “hit it off” in the spring.
“Each of them brings a unique perspective,” Hackenberg said. “Bryce was in my shoes just last year. Geno was in my shoes a couple years ago.”
Then he added with a laugh: “And Fitz was in my shoes half a century ago. It’s like a timeline, so it’s pretty cool.”