With his backup out, the star quarterback played almost all the Nittany Lions' intrasquad scrimmage Saturday. Hackenberg threw for 180 yards and a touchdown and was picked off once. Most important, Penn State's most irreplaceable player came away healthy as Hackenberg's Blue team beat the White team 17-7.
That might not have been the case if it was a real game. Penn State's offensive line had a tough time keeping its defensive line out of the backfield. Hackenberg was ''sacked'' five times - no tackling the franchise - and had to scramble a few others.
''Obviously our defensive line still holds the advantage over our offensive line,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said. ''That's going to continue to be a work in progress and a focus all offseason.''
Trace McSorley was expected to take most of the reps at quarterback for the Blue team, but he was among a handful of player held out of the game. Franklin did not disclose why.
Hackenberg, a junior, is heading into his third season as Penn State's starter. He has the talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country and a potential top NFL draft pick.
If Penn State is going to take a step forward after going 7-6 in Franklin's first year, Hackenberg will have to lead the Nittany Lions.
Hackenberg's numbers as a sophomore were worse than his freshmen year stats, but that's a bit deceiving. As a freshman, Hackenberg had a more developed supporting cast and threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns in 12 games, with 10 interceptions and a 58.9 completion percentage.
Last year, his completion rate dropped to 55.8. He threw 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, playing behind a patchwork offensive line that gave up 44 sacks.
This season the line should be deeper and more experienced. Same goes for the receivers. Sophomore Saeed Blacknall has the look of a rising star. He had six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown on Saturday.
Hackenberg was 17 for 29 on mostly short throws and quick releases. His best looking pass was one of the few that went down the field. He hit Blacknall deep near the right sideline with a perfectly placed ball that the receiver caught over the shoulder before going out of bounds.
Hackenberg was also stepped on by an offensive lineman at one point and came away a bit gimpy. He said he was fine and happy to get more playing time than the two series Franklin originally planned to play him.
''I was excited about it,'' Hackenberg said. ''It's always fun to be able to compete in that type of setting and work with these guys. So I was happy that I was able to have that opportunity.''
Other takeaways from Penn State's spring game.
The Penn State defensive does have a chance to be very good along the defensive line, but the first-team defense was playing for the Blue Team - including excellent tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. That makes the pressure the White team got on Hackenberg even more problematic.
A key for Penn State will be the development of junior college transfer Paris Palmer at left tackle.
''I think we're way ahead of where we were last year,'' Franklins said. ''As a group, still got a situation now where we got a brand new guy trying to learn at left tackle. I think that showed up a few times today.''
ABOUT THAT DEFENSIVE LINE
Penn State's tackles will be as good as any combo in the country, but they'll leaning on some less experienced players at defensive end. Evan Schwan and Curtis Cothran each had two sacks for the White team and could help bolster a group that also includes Carl Nassib, Garrett Sickels and Torrence Brown.
After dealing with a roster short on numbers due to NCAA sanctions the past few years, Franklin was just happy Penn State could comfortably suit up two full competitive teams this spring. The announced crowd on a warm and sunny day was 68,000 and local law enforcement estimated another 18,000 just tailgated and never made it inside.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP