Taking Stock: Quarterbacks
Blue White Illustrated begins its multi-part series examining the Nittany Lion roster as it proceeds through winter workouts and eventually into spring practices. Today, we'll start with a look at Penn State's quarterback position:
KEY LOSS Trace McSorley
OUTLOOK Trace McSorley has been such a fixture in a Penn State uniform, the question of how he’ll be succeeded, and by whom, is the biggest unknown at the position for the Nittany Lions in years.
Tommy Stevens is the odds-on favorite to win the job, and should and will be seen as such as the Nittany Lions begin their months-long preparations in advance of the 2019 season.
Stevens’ recent injury history creates doubt at the position that otherwise probably wouldn’t exist, however. And that doubt now extends back for nearly a full year.
Though announcing his intention to return to Penn State to finish out his career in March 2018, Stevens did so while sidelined from spring practices with an unspecified right foot injury. Fast forward to the days leading into the Nittany Lions’ season and, though Stevens had returned to participate at the start of preseason practice, he again was held out of action as the campaign began in earnest, and could again be seen wearing a walking boot on his right foot.
The Indiana native would not return to action until Penn State’s fifth game of the season against Ohio State and would end up participating in just seven games for the year while making a limited impact either as a backup quarterback or in his multi-pronged “Lion” role. And by the time Penn State arrived in Orlando for its Citrus Bowl appearance against Kentucky on New Year’s Day, head coach James Franklin revealed Stevens would not be a participant against the Wildcats.
“Tommy had an injury about the midpoint of the season that you guys weren’t aware of. We had a lot of discussions about when’s the right time to have the surgery, but Tommy’s family and the staff decided the best time to have the surgery would be once his academics finished up and he got through the season,” said Franklin. “He was able to do that and now this will allow him, hopefully, to be full-go for spring ball.”
Long establishing himself as unwilling to discuss much of anything in the way of injuries, Franklin’s comments, though purposefully vague, don’t exactly inspire confidence for Stevens’ playing potential for the immediate future.
What is the injury? Is it the same culprit that kept him off the field last spring and at the start of the 2018 season? Did the pre-bowl surgery that prevented him from traveling to Orlando rectify the issue? What’s the timeline for recovery?
Without knowing the specifics to these questions, let alone even a cursory knowledge beyond the notion that Stevens will, according to Franklin, “hopefully” be full-go for spring practices, sizing up the quarterback position for the Nittany Lions takes on a different shape.
Given the benefit of the doubt that Stevens will be cleared and ready to go for the 2019 season, with or without participation in the program’s upcoming spring practices, the safe bet remains that he’ll have a leg-up on rising redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford. The official second-string quarterback backup to McSorley throughout the 2018 season, when not injured, Stevens has positioned himself to make that ascent into the starting job for two years now.
“You guys the last couple of years have got a chance to see him throw and throw really well. The same thing in practice. He throws for a high percentage and is a really good decision-maker and has grown,” said Franklin of Stevens this season. “We're very pleased with his development as a quarterback.”
An injured or still-recovering Stevens during Penn State’s preseason practices would figure to change that projection, though.
Two true freshman quarterbacks have arrived on campus in the form of Rivals.com four-star dual-threat quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson (No. 9 among dual-threat QBs) and three-star Michael Johnson Jr. (16th among dual-threat QBs), statuesque QB Will Levis is poised for his debut following a redshirt in 2018, and Clifford was merely perfect in his first three career appearances this past season.
Making his first pass attempt in Penn State’s 51-6 win at Pitt, Clifford hit Brandon Polk for a 34-yard touchdown right out of the gates. A week later, he followed with three completions on three attempts for 117 yards, including a program-record 95-yard touchdown to Daniel George. And, capping his three-game stint with ample backup snap opportunities, Clifford tossed a 44-yarder to Mac Hippenhammer as the Nittany Lions blew past Illinois in Champaign.
Opportunities for Clifford dried up as Stevens returned and, more important, the Nittany Lions were in competitive games throughout most of the rest of the 2018 season that kept McSorley in for the duration of most outings. Spelling an injured McSorley again in the Citrus Bowl, Clifford’s perfect 5-for-5 streak came to an end but still prompted McSorley to offer strong words of commendation on the way out.
“A guy like Cliff, he's a guy that can lead… He’s always going to be ready. He's always going to be prepared. He came in today when his number was called, he went in and operated and did what he had to do, but then the rest of the time, he was trailing my hip, asking questions,” said McSorley at the postgame press conference. “I'm excited to see what his career is going to look like because he's got everything that you need in a quarterback to be successful and I think he's going to be able to just continue to make those strides, leaps, and bounds, and take control. And then, whether it's next year, or two years, three years from now, whenever his time is, he's going to be ready.”
Either way, given the quarterbacks that Franklin already had on campus, the head coach expressed confidence throughout the 2018 season that, like McSorley before them, the transition toward the future at the position is one that he feels the same about.
“There was a transition before Trace and I told you guys that we had a lot of confidence in Trace and what the future held for him,” said Franklin. “And I think, you know, there's still a very similar feeling that way with Tommy and Cliff. Those guys have done some really good things and Levis is kind of in that direction, as well. “I think whenever you've had a guy start as many games as he started, it's going to be a transition. It's going to be different, there's no doubt about it. But I do think we've seen enough evidence in games and enough evidence in practice. I think there's a lot of confidence and excitement for the future, as well.”
With little choice but to wait and see what the coming months hold for Stevens, whether he’s full-go for spring practice or in a walking boot, it’s a position for the Nittany Lions that doesn’t appear to have a predetermined outcome.