Previewing Penn State's quarterback room entering fall camp
Penn State's fall camp is officially underway and their season opener against Purdue is just 30 days away. With that, it's officially time to begin previewing Penn State's 2022 season beginning with the Nittany Lions' quarterback room.
On paper, Penn State's quarterback room entering this fall is the deepest of the James Franklin era. The Nittany Lions have four quarterbacks who have the potential to be true Power Five caliber starting quarterbacks in super senior Sean Clifford, redshirt freshman Christian Veilleux, and a pair of true freshmen quarterbacks in Drew Allar and Beau Pribula.
It's a much higher upside quarterback room for the Nittany Lions to say the least than in years past. Over the last several years of the James Franklin era, the program has struggled in creating depth at the program's most important position. Names such as Micah Bowens, Michael Johnson Jr, and Will Levis have all come and gone, leaving current sixth-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford as the lone constant in the quarterback room since his arrival in 2017.
Bowens is currently at Oklahoma serving as a depth quarterback while Johnson Jr. is serving as a backup quarterback for FAU. Levis, of course, has gone on and enjoyed success with Kentucky and is now considered a potential first-round draft pick in next April's NFL Draft. But even during his time with the Nittany Lions', the former three-star prospect never truly showed the skill set that he had with Kentucky in 2021.
While Levis's departure from the program certainly stung more for Penn State fans upon his breakout season and Penn State’s offensive struggles in the second half of the season. The biggest issue created with his departure, however, was the lack of experience in the quarterback room. Without Levis in the quarterback room prior to last season, the Nittany Lions were left with just one quarterback with snaps in meaningful game situations.
That lack of experience ended up playing a huge role in how Penn State's season developed, once Sean Clifford left last year's Iowa game with an upper-body injury, the Nittany Lions had to go with redshirt sophomore Taquon Roberson who had limited experience at the college level and none with meaningful snaps. Roberson looked incredibly overmatched during his time on the field against Iowa, albeit on the road in one of the country's most hostile environments, completing just 7-of-21 passing attempts for 34 yards while throwing two interceptions. In a game that Penn State once led 17-3, the Nittany Lions could only muster a single field goal with Roberson under center en route to a heartbreaking 23-20 loss to the Hawkeyes.
It was a tough lesson learned for the Nittany Lions and one that they will hope to not repeat this upcoming season. We'll talk more about that below. Notably, it's also year two for quarterbacks Sean Clifford and Christian Veilleux under offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich. Yurcich is Clifford's fourth offensive coordinator, having stability in the offensive coordinator position heading into this season could end up being quite the factor for Penn State's offense as a whole but especially in the play and confidence of Sean Clifford.
Now without further ado, let's take a look at the four members of Penn State's quarterback room in 2022.
Projected Starter — Sean Clifford
Returning for his sixth year in Happy Valley, Sean Clifford will be Penn State's starting quarterback come September 1 against Purdue barring injury in fall camp. The Cincinnati (OH) native has 38 career games under his belt and over 1,000 passing attempts, making him one of the country's most experienced signal callers. The Nittany Lions are hoping that experience pays off in a big way this season.
Last year, Clifford got off to a strong start in the program's first five games, completing 67.3% of his passes for 1,336 yards and 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions. It included a highly impressive performance against Auburn that saw the senior quarterback complete 28 of 32 passing attempts for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Behind his strong play, the Nittany Lions were 5-0 and ranked top-five in the country heading into Iowa City for a showdown with the Iowa Hawkeyes while Clifford began to garner some early Heisman hype. However, after suffering an upper-body injury against the Hawkeyes, Clifford struggled to find the success he had earlier in the season.
In Penn State's seven games following the injury, Clifford completed just 57.2% of his passes for 1,652 yards and 10 touchdowns. He did a good job of not turning the ball over with just three interceptions in those final seven games but ultimately Clifford and Penn State's offense alike struggled to find consistent success in moving the ball throughout the second half of the season. The program as a whole went 2-5 in those seven games.
Entering this fall, very few quarterbacks in the country have the experience that Clifford will provide to the Nittany Lions offense and there is optimism that Clifford will regain the form he had at the beginning of last season. If he does find that form, Penn State's offense this upcoming season has the potential to be amongst the best not just in the Big Ten but in the entire country. While a Kenny Pickett-like breakout is unlikely, a notable step forward could realistically happen for Clifford in 2022.
For that to be the case, however, Clifford will need to both remain healthy but also remain consistent. His career as the Nittany Lions' starting quarterback has been marred by a lack of consistency in his accuracy and decision making. An example being his strong performances last season against Auburn and Villanova, going a combined 47-for-58 for 681-yards and six touchdowns. just a week later, he struggled against Indiana, completing just 51.5% of his passes for 178 yards.
With a career completion of 60.4% and only incremental increases each year, Clifford's accuracy is unlikely to take any great leaps in a positive or negative direction this season. He will likely once again have those struggles but will he be able to at the very least limit those struggles? If Penn State is going to make a run at a potential Big Ten East division crown in 2022, Clifford will need to play relatively mistake-free football throughout the season.
Clifford's place in the record books...
Now entering his fourth year of being the Nittany Lions' starting quarterback, Clifford will also have the opportunity this fall to break several Penn State school records. He is just 2,039 yards away from breaking Penn State's all-time passing yards record and just 2,161 yards away from being Penn State's first quarterback to pass for 10,000 yards or more in his career. Additionally, he just needs 113 completions and 16 touchdowns to break Trace McSorley's records for passing completions (720) and touchdowns (77) in a career.
One last career feat to watch for would be breaking the 100 career touchdowns mark, Clifford currently sits at 82 total touchdowns. Over Penn State's 128 previous seasons, only Trace McSorley has accomplished the feat, totaling 107 total touchdowns (77 passing, 30 rushing).
Backup Quarterback: Christian Veilleux
Veilleux has become somewhat of a forgotten name inside of Penn State's quarterback room thanks to the additions of Drew Allar and Beau Pribula. Last year, the Ottawa (Canada) native made his collegiate debut, playing in a pair of games against Rutgers and Arkansas. During those two games, the then freshman quarterback went a combined 16-for-26 (61.5%) for 238 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Solid numbers for his first taste of college football.
Getting Veilleux time on the field last year, especially against Rutgers, where he got his first career cannot be understated for the Nittany Lions. While Rutgers may not be on the level of Michigan, Michigan State, or Ohio State, any sort of in-game, meaningful snap experience for Veilleux can be used as a positive building block entering this fall. In the very least, it also ensures Penn State enters the season with more than just one quarterback who has seen Big Ten action.
Although Sean Clifford has played in 34 of Penn State's 35 games over the past three seasons, Clifford has had a tendency to get a bit banged up throughout the course of a season and has had to be removed from games temporarily before. Having even a briefly experienced Veilleux behind Clifford will provide Penn State's offense with a quarterback that has proven they could be trusted to operate the offense at a competitive level in any Clifford absences.
Very few programs are able to grab two high-upside quarterbacks in the same class but that's just what Penn State did in the 2022 recruiting cycle. Drew Allar has received much of the national attention and Penn State fans every are already daydreaming about what the Ohio native will do during his time in Happy Valley. While Allar's ceiling is sky high, former Central York standout Beau Pribula's own ceiling is quite high in his own right. Both quarterbacks enter fall camp as redshirt candidates though they both may have the opportunity to play a handful of snaps throughout the season.