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Penn State's Christian Hackenberg bulks up, set to run more

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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Christian Hackenberg is among the most promising quarterback talents in college football.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg's highly anticipated sophomore season begins on Saturday, and fans will see a bigger, stronger version of the star signal-caller.

Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions face UCF, which beat Penn State last season, in Dublin, Ireland. Last season, UCF's Blake Bortles was the touted quarterback when the teams met. This time, the spotlight will be on Hackenberg, and it should remain there all season.

Hackenberg is playing for a new coach, has no proven go-to receiver and will operate behind a line that has been rebuilt. But with Ohio State's Braxton Miller out for the season with a shoulder injury, Hackenberg has assumed the mantle of best quarterback in the Big Ten. He acknowledges Penn State's offensive issues, but remains confident.

"It will take us a little while to jell, but I felt like it took a while to jell last year and hit our stride and hit the level of execution we wanted to," Hackenberg told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call. "We're trying to make that point come a little quicker than it did a year ago. With the new guys, we're excited about what they bring to the table.

"I definitely feel like we can be better than what we were last year."

Hackenberg is listed at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds -- 14 pounds heavier than last season. He said he has added both weight and strength. He also said he has improved his footwork and drops while developing a stronger, more accurate release.

"He has been exactly what we hoped he would be," offensive coordinator John Donovan told the Morning Call. "He's a very talented kid with a lot of ability. ... He's everything, on and off the field, you would want at that position."

Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 TDs as a true freshman last season playing for coach Bill O'Brien. But O'Brien now coaches the Houston Texans, and new Penn State coach James Franklin and his staff have tweaked the offense. One tweak is that Hackenberg is expected to run more this season.

Because of an inexperienced offensive line, Franklin told the Morning Call he sees value in preparing Hackenberg to run more. He said that also extends to rolling Hackenberg from the pocket to throw.

"You can say, 'We've got this guy who can really throw it; we'd better take advantage of it,'" Franklin said. "But we have some inexperience at wide receiver and we have some inexperience on the offensive line, so we need to be balanced. And we're going to have to do some things to take all that into account."

Hackenberg told the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune he feels "a lot more confident than I was (last season) just in terms of both understanding our offensive scheme and understanding defensive schemes as well. Confidence is probably the biggest thing that has changed from last year to this year."

NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks has touted Hackenberg's "impressive" arm strength, anticipation and awareness, writing in May that "NFL scouts are already salivating about his potential at the next level."

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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