Hackenberg preparing for Penn State

Christian Hackenberg's black Under Armour helmet sits on his bedroom dresser, while his jersey -- with the unmistakable scent of sweat -- rests on a pile of laundry.

ESPN's No. 1-rated quarterback isn't sure where the final resting place for that memorabilia might be. Maybe the jersey will be framed, maybe just stuck somewhere in his closet, lost amid a line of T-shirts and jeans.

But, for now, the prospect out of Fork Union (Va.) wants to keep that helmet on his dresser. That helmet symbolizes the final chapter before his Penn State career, the last game he'll cradle a football in until he steps foot in Happy Valley.

"You know, that's something I think about every day,' Hackenberg said about playing at PSU. "It's tough, but you got to wait for good things. So I'm just trying to prepare, so I can pick up things quickly."

The four-star passer flew to Florida this past week to do exactly that. To prepare -- for Penn State, his future and a shot at the Nittany Lions' starting job. He's already spoken to former NFL players like Trent Dilfer, and he's heard the same line of advice from his high school coach, father and Bill O'Brien: The college game is faster. Much faster. You have to be ready.

Familiarizing himself with that speed is the primary reason Hackenberg wanted to run laps and toss footballs while most high-schoolers were still basking in the afterglow of Christmas. It wasn't easy at first; Hackenberg knew to expect a faster game competing against the nation's top players. But, on Day 1 of the Under Armour practices, Hackenberg didn't anticipate such a big difference. The cornerbacks' closing speed was unlike anything he had experienced, the passing windows seemed smaller and his time in the pocket remained limited.

"I wouldn't say it was nervousness or anything like that," Hackenberg said. "It was like, 'Woah,' and taking a step back to realize that I really had to take everything into account, rather than being like, 'This guy's going to be open because of the coverage he's giving me.'

"You have to look at mismatches and throwing windows you've never thrown in before. Cooper Bateman and Zack Greenlee were just talking about how this was a big time difference from what we were doing just a few months ago."

About midway through Day 2, Hackenberg said he adjusted. He garnered praise from ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill and earned the starting job for Team Highlight. He chatted with former NFL coach Herm Edwards, a man PSU fans once hoped might be the next head coach, and spent time with future teammate Adam Breneman.

"Christian is a kid you build a program around," Dilfer said earlier this year. "You're better the moment he steps on campus."

Hackenberg relaxed more as the week progressed and, come gametime, he felt he did well. He failed to capitalize on a late drive but finished 3-for-6 in the first half for 28 yards -- including an 18-yard spiral on the back shoulder of Robert Foster.

For the next six months, Hackenberg will continue to train -- up until his parents attend his commencement at Fork Union Military Academy and then pack up his belongings and drive five hours to State College.

Until then, he might just glance at that black helmet every so often and remember just how far he has to go to find success in the Big Ten and just how hard he has to work.

"Normally, we can just play our game and still be on top," he said. "But, there, we had to sort of scrap and fight.

"It was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to Penn State."