When Christian Hackenberg finished the 2015 season at Penn State, he turned pro after his junior year, hired a personal coach and a fitness trainer and a nutritionist, and moved to Southern California in early January. For 2 1/2 months, he lived like an NFL quarterback, sans team practices and games.
He started at 5:30 a.m. with film study, followed by passing drills on the field, a workout in the gym, and an evening homework assignment from his coach, usually involving more film breakdown. He ate well, as prepared meals were delivered to his condo in Dana Point. When he ventured to the local Whole Foods, he was accompanied by his nutritionist, who explained the importance of smart shopping and eating.
There were no exams, no schoolwork and no distractions. It was 24/7 football, a 10-week boot camp that helped him prepare for the scouting combine, pre-draft workouts and, well, life. The quarterback life.
Hackenberg was born to play quarterback (more on that in a bit) and he played the position so well before his 19th birthday that he was given the can't-miss label. Then he did a lot of missing in his final two seasons at Penn State, interrupting his carefree ascent. In January, three months before the New York Jets drafted him in the second round, he required mental and physical first aid.
"I'd say he was a guy, in January, who had some wounds, some theoretical wounds he needed to tend to," said Jordan Palmer, the younger brother of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and a former NFL backup-turned-quarterback tutor.
And so began the healing of Christian Hackenberg. How it unfolds -- or how long it takes -- will be fascinating.
Desperate for a franchise quarterback, the Jets decided to bet on his upside, thinking he could be their starter as soon as 2017. Hackenberg didn't receive glowing reviews last week in his first pro minicamp, continuing a theme that started in Happy Valley: He struggled with his accuracy.
Coach Todd Bowles insisted it's not a concern, saying it was too early to make evaluations on a rookie quarterback. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall offered his take on Hackenberg, saying minicamp was "an opportunity for him to just get beat up, see a lot, lose a lot, because these moments are where you grow."
In January, Jordan Palmer detected a mechanical flaw in Hackenberg's delivery. The discovery happened in their first week together in SoCal, where they studied every pass in his college career -- all 1,235 of them. He misfired 44 percent of the time, including a maddening number of wide receiver screens. NFL assistants who studied his tape will tell you his footwork was sloppy, causing him to be off-target on even the shortest of throws. They suspect it was due to shoddy pass protection (103 sacks), the byproduct of a roster decimated by the post-Jerry Sandusky NCAA sanctions.
Hackenberg displayed a tendency to over-stride, preventing his back hip from firing, according to Palmer. As a result, the ball came out early, causing it to sail. Palmer believes he corrected the problem by emphasizing the triple-threat position. For a quarterback, it means setting up in a way that allows him to throw, run or slide in the pocket out of the same stance. It's the same body position, over and over and over, no exceptions.
"We repped it a million times," said Palmer, adding that Hackenberg has incorporated a warm-up for the triple-threat position into his pregame routine.
Palmer used the Coach's Eye app on his computer to help teach the finer points of the technique. He downloaded video of Hackenberg, made notations on the touch screen and recorded voice-overs, offering tips and criticisms. He emailed it to Hackenberg, who bought an HDMI cable for his laptop and reviewed everything from his rented condo.
"I gave him the diagnosis and provided the prescription," Palmer said.
It was part of Hackenberg's California experience, which differed from the typical pre-draft prep.
Instead of focusing entirely on the physical elements of the position, Palmer worked on Hackenberg's mind, simulating an NFL environment. For three weeks, he cast Hackenberg in the role of Carson Palmer, NFL quarterback.
As Palmer and the Cardinals prepared for their playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, so did Hackenberg, who watched a week of tape. On Monday, he studied the Packers' last five games. On Tuesday, he broke down their base pressures. On Wednesday, it was their sub-defenses. On Thursday, it was third down. On Friday, it was red zone. On Saturday, he talked with Palmer by phone to compare notes.
Hackenberg repeated the process for the Cardinals' second opponent, the Carolina Panthers. He didn't stop when Arizona's season stopped; he did a complete game prep for the Super Bowl, analyzing the Denver Broncos' defense.
"It's basically what I'm going to be doing this year, so I feel like it was really helpful from that standpoint," said Hackenberg, who wrapped up the 10-week program by breaking down every throw from Andrew Luck's terrific rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012.
This evaluation work took place in Dana Point, California, not far from Mission Viejo, where former Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez grew up. In fact, Hackenberg crossed paths with a couple of Sanchez acquaintances.
Hackenberg's personal trainer, whom he met with every day at noon, was Todd Norman, who trains Sanchez. Hackenberg's professional nutritionist was Cathy McKnight, the mother of former Jets draft pick Scotty McKnight, one of Sanchez's closest friends. Small world, huh? She prepared his menu and took him shopping, steering him away from junk food.
For 10 weeks, he ate like an NFL quarterback, studied like an NFL quarterback, and trained like an NFL quarterback.
"It was a lot of X's and O's, but it was also preparing you to take that next step, what's expected of you on and off the field, which was pretty cool," Hackenberg said. "It was a unique process. Jordan said he hadn't seen it done that way before."
After three years in the crucible of Penn State football, a stressful environment in which his every move was dissected, Hackenberg probably needed to escape for a couple of months to reboot. He absorbed a physical and mental beatdown in college, prompting some NFL evaluators to wonder whether he'd be able to recover enough to succeed at the next level. That he landed in New York, where mediocre quarterbacks get crushed by fans and media, probably didn't help. On the positive side, he won't be rushed into the lineup, softening the transition.
"It's the perfect spot," Jordan Palmer said. "He's good enough to lead a team and it won't be too big for him. The lights won't be too bright. He can learn from Ryan [Fitzpatrick, if he re-signs] and he won't be a miserable pain in the ass because he's not playing."
This will be different for Hackenberg, always the bus driver, never a passenger. He was one of the top recruits in the country and one of the stars at the prestigious Elite 11 passing academy. Surrounded by the nation's top high school quarterbacks, he was the alpha male, impressing with his cocksure demeanor.
"He didn't flinch," said Joey Roberts, the Elite 11 director of scouting. "His attitude was, 'I'm the biggest, baddest dude here and I’m gonna be that way.'"
Hackenberg grew up in the sport, which probably explains his confidence. His father, Erick, played quarterback at Virginia and Susquehanna University. His father, Barry Hackenberg, coached high school ball for 30 years in Pennsylvania. Christian Hackenberg's maternal grandfather, Richard Miller, was a captain and record-breaking receiver at Lehigh. Hackenberg also has an uncle who played at West Point.
So, really, Hackenberg's football education began Feb. 14, 1995, the day he was born. His earliest memories were formed when he was little, hanging around the locker room, working as the water boy, and getting to know the quarterbacks who played for his grandfather and father, who also got into coaching.
"It was easy for me to fall in love with it," he said.
Hackenberg was the football version of "The Natural," especially after a promising freshman year at Penn State. Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense and coaching acumen provided what Roberts called "a master's-level graduate course for an 18-year-old." Hackenberg was hyped as a potential top-10 pick, but his coach left for the Houston Texans, the talent eroded quickly under NCAA sanctions, and he never was a good fit in current coach James Franklin's spread offense.
By the time Hackenberg connected with Palmer in California, the once-baddest dude on the field needed a makeover.
"I helped him for two months, but that kid did everything on his own," Palmer said. "This kid fought his ass off in a tough situation. I think it made him a better player. Just wait."