Penn State football: Could/should Drew Allar start at QB from Day 1?
Just. Try. Something. Else.
With Penn State coming off a 2-year stretch of .500 football, plenty of Nittany Lions fans find themselves at their wits’ end. For the love of Joe Paterno, something has to change, and quickly.
Once head coach James Franklin signed on for 10 more years, the next target of restless fans was quarterback Sean Clifford. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the soon-to-be 24-year-old has been around since 2017 and has been leading the offense for the past 3 seasons.
Given the mixed results, Clifford’s recent announcement that he’ll return in 2022 for a 6th season drew a collective groan from a significant segment of Nittany Nation. They’d rather see 5-star recruit Drew Allar take the reins immediately, some of them irrationally fearing that the 17-year-old will bolt to the transfer portal if he doesn’t play right away. Actually, Clifford and Allar, fellow Ohioans, are becoming fast friends and embracing the mentor-protégé relationship.
That doesn’t mean the 6-4 ½, 230-pound Allar can’t progress from understudy to leading man by Sept. 3’s season-opener at Purdue. But it’d be foolish to bet that way. The odds are better that he ends up as the starter sometime later on in the 2022 season.
Since 2013, when true freshman Christian Hackenberg started from Game 1 at Penn State, there have been 24 5-star QB recruits through 2021 according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. Of those 24, 4 started in their team’s season-opener the next fall, 13 started at least 1 game in their true freshman year, and 11 left their original program via transfer. Of the 12 who have finished their time in college, only 5 spent all of that time at their original school.
So, should Allar join Bo Nix (Auburn 2019), JT Daniels (USC 2018), Josh Rosen (UCLA 2015) and Hackenberg (Penn State 2013) in the elite club of 5-star QBs who started in their first college game?
The latest data on Allar
Allar played in the All-American Bowl on Saturday, a high-school all-star game in San Antonio. He didn’t look sharp, though he did eventually hit a wide-open receiver for a touchdown. Before that, however, he misfired on a bunch of passes and got a taste of what life at PSU might be like when he got sacked as his O-line didn’t impede either defensive end whatsoever.
That said, his high school numbers scream stud QB: As a senior, he led Medina (Ohio) to a 13-1 record, throwing for 4,444 yards and 48 TDs. He also ran for 382 yards and 9 TDs.
Clifford is a mixed bag
Clifford has proven to be an enigma at Penn State. In 2 hot stretches, he’s gone 17-0. Outside of those streaks, however, he’s gone 4-12, looking completely incompetent to start the 2020 season and petering out down the stretch in 2021.
He’s been a warrior who played through aches, pains and injuries, but also a guy who has missed open receivers on a number of occasions. Given that he’s been the starter for 3 seasons, it’s hard to imagine he’ll suddenly find a higher gear in 2022.
Does Penn State have other options?
Even if Clifford hadn’t opted to return, Allar wouldn’t be a sure thing to start from Game 1. This past year’s true freshman, Christian Veilleux, played a fantastic game in relief of a flu-ridden Clifford against Rutgers, leading the Lions to a 28-0 victory by going 15-of-24 for 235 yards and 3 TDs.
As you read this, Allar has probably already sat through his first class at Penn State. As an early enrollee, he’s already working with the training staff and will be participating in spring and summer workouts. If he flat-out outperforms all the other QBs, he’ll start. But Clifford will get all benefit of the doubt given his level or experience. If Penn State’s offensive line can’t significantly improve, Franklin and OC Mike Yurcich might hold Allar back just to protect him.
What’s the upside of Allar as QB1?
Hackenberg might be the perfect case study, given that he had to play behind a shaky O-line. Over 3 seasons, Hackenberg never completed 60 percent of his passes and never threw for 3,000 yards. He went 21-17 while starting every game, with 48 TD passes and 31 INTs. Clifford, by contrast, has completed better than 60 percent of his passes the past 2 seasons, threw for 3,107 yards this past season and has 62 TDs vs. 24 INTs in his career.
Of the 3 other 5-star QBs since Hackenberg who started right away, Nix had the best debut season, going 9-4 in 2019. Rosen went 8-5 at UCLA in 2015, and Daniels went 5-7 at USC in 2018.
But beyond the W-L record, Allar would bring some buzz and freshness to a program that has gone stale. Clifford represents more of the same, and he’s not likely to have another 8- or 9-game win streak in him. Allar and RB recruit Nicholas Singleton would at least bring excitement and hope for the future if they work their way into the lineup.
Even the very best …
Though Allar is rated the top QB in the 2022 class by some ratings services, he’s only the No. 4 QB in the 247Sports’ composite listings and the No. 27 player overall. Of the 29 5-star QBs since Hackenberg’s 2013 class, 21 were rated higher overall than Allar. That is to say, there is no way of knowing if the baby-faced 17-year-old can be ready to lead a Power 5 offense less than 9 months from now.
Put it this way: Trevor Lawrence didn’t displace Kelly Bryant until his 5th game at Clemson in 2018, and he was rated the best prospect in the country that year. Peyton Manning didn’t start until Tennessee’s 5th game in 1994. Cam Newton, a 5-star recruit in 2007, threw 12 passes in mop-up duty over 2 seasons at Florida before leading Auburn to the national title in the 2010 season.
What’s the downside?
Let’s be honest: A Hackenberg-type career would be a huge disappointment. Unlike back then, Franklin has chosen this recruit rather than inheriting him. And despite its struggles over the past 2 seasons, Penn State isn’t depleted by NCAA penalties. The Nittany Lions’ struggles are of their own making, not the result of heavy-handed sanctions.
But even if Penn State fixes its various offensive issues, that’s no guarantee that Allar will be the missing piece of the puzzle right away.
Bearing the burden of savior status, he could regress if pressed into duty right away.
Consider Graham Mertz, a top-100 overall recruit in 2019 who chose Wisconsin over schools like Alabama, Georgia and Clemson, just to name a few. Mertz played a few snaps in 2 games as a true freshman, then took the starting job from Jack Coan in 2020. Wisconsin thought it was going to add an elite passing attack to its traditional power running game and be unstoppable. Instead, Mertz struggled so badly that the coaching staff dialed him back to 8 passing attempts in a midseason victory over Purdue this year. Since starting his Wisconsin career 41-of-53 with 7 TDs and no interceptions, he’s completed 58.7 percent of his throws with 12 TDs and 16 INTs. He’s the definition of a game manager, having never thrown for even 250 yards in a game — his best effort produced 248 passing yards, in his first start to open the 2020 season.
Higher-rated QB recruits than Allar have flamed out.
In 2013, Max Browne was rated above Hackenberg, the No. 11 overall recruit and top QB in the class. He didn’t play a down as a freshman, then played 3 seasons as a backup at USC before transferring to Pitt. He made 5 starts for Panthers in 2017 before an injury ended his season and career.
Another such story is that of Blake Barnett, the No. 2 QB and No. 22 overall recruit in 2015. He sat and watched at Alabama as a true freshman, then threw 19 passes in mop-up duty in 2016. Moving on to Arizona State, he threw 5 passes for the Sun Devils in 2017. Finally, in 2018, he started 11 games for South Florida, throwing for 12 TDs and 11 INTs as the Bulls finished 7-6.
Looking back: 5-star QBs of past 10 years
Here’s a look at all the 5-star QBs since Hackenberg’s 2013 recruiting class. After that, I’ll offer final thoughts on the Penn State-Allar situation.
x-Started in first game
y-Started sometime in true freshman season
(Number in parentheses is overall player ranking in 247Sports’ composite top-100 for that year)
Cade Klubnik, Clemson (18): TBD
Conner Weigman, Texas A&M (19): TBD
Ty Simpson, Alabama (24): TBD
Drew Allar, Penn State (27): TBD
Walker Howard, LSU (34): TBD
Quinn Ewers, Ohio State (1): Used Buckeyes to begin collecting NIL money a year early. Transferred to Texas after season having never thrown a pass for them.
y-Caleb Williams, Oklahoma (7): Took starting job from fellow 5-star Spencer Rattler in 6th game of season. Finished with 21 TD passes and 4 INTs as team went 11-2. Unseated Rattler despite team being unbeaten at the time.
y-Sam Huard, Washington (12): Played in 4 games, making his 1st start vs. Washington State in the Apple Cup to end the regular season.
Brock Vandagriff, Georgia (17): Played in 1 game, throwing 1 incomplete pass.
JJ McCarthy, Michigan (25): Played in 11 games as Cade McNamara’s backup, showing promise as a passer and runner.
y-Kyle McCord, Ohio State (28): Played in 5 games, including a start against Akron in the 4th game of the season as CJ Stroud rested a sore shoulder.
Bryce Young, Alabama (2): Played in 7 games behind Mac Jones. Took the starting job this season and won the Heisman.
y-DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson (10): Made 2 starts, the first one in the Tigers’ 7th game. Took over full-time this season, leading Tigers to 10-3 finish despite only 9 TD throws and 10 interceptions.
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma (11): Played in 3 games, no starts. Took starting job in 2020, lost it in 2021. Transferred to South Carolina.
x-Bo Nix, Auburn (33): Started immediately as true freshman. Led Tigers for 3 years before transferring to Oregon.
y-Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (1): Replaced Kelly Bryant as starter in 5th game of season and led Tigers to national title. Started for 3 seasons, going 34-2, before moving on to NFL.
Justin Fields, Georgia (2): Played in 12 games for Georgia but never started over Jake Fromm and never threw more than 8 passes in a game. Finished 27-of-39 for 328 yards and 4 TDs with no interceptions. Transferred to Ohio State the next season.
x-JT Daniels, USC (16): Started from Day 1 as Trojans went 5-7. Was injured in next year’s opener, then transferred to Georgia in 2020. Started for the Bulldogs this year until suffering an injury and giving way to Stetson Bennett. Might need to transfer again to get back on field.
Davis Mills, Stanford (15): Didn’t play as true freshman. Threw 2 incomplete passes in 1 game in 2018. Made 11 starts over the next 2 years.
Hunter Johnson, Clemson (30): Played in 7 games as a true freshman, then transferred to Northwestern.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (32): Never started as a freshman but subbed into the national championship game vs. Georgia and won MVP honors as the Tide won the title. Started 24 games over next 2 years before an injury ended his college career.
y-Shea Patterson, Ole Miss (4): Didn’t play until November, but then started the last 3 games of the season and threw 132 times, completing 72 for 880 yards. Two years later he was starting at Michigan.
y-Jacob Eason, Georgia (5): Started in the Bulldogs’ 2nd game and every one thereafter in 2016, but lost the job to Jake Fromm after getting hurt in the opener the following fall. He then transferred to Washington.
x-Josh Rosen, UCLA (11): Started all 13 games for the Bruins in 2015, going 8-5, and 17 more over the next 2 years, only missing time because of injury.
Blake Barnett, Alabama (22): Never played as true freshman. Threw 19 passes for Tide in 2016, then threw 5 passes for Arizona State in 2017. Finally started 11 games for South Florida in 2018, throwing for 12 TDs and 11 INTs as the Bulls went 7-6.
y-Kyler Murray, Texas A&M (34): Started in 8th game (35-28 victory over South Carolina). Transferred to Oklahoma for 2017 season after sitting out a year.
y-Kyle Allen, Texas A&M (8): Started the final 5 games of his true freshman season, then played in 10 games as a sophomore before transferring to Houston.
Max Browne, USC (11): Didn’t play at all as a true freshman, then played 3 seasons as a backup before transferring and making 5 starts for Pittsburgh in 2017 before an injury ended his season and career.
x-Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (13): Started 38 straight games during Penn State’s “Sanctions Era” and was the program’s leader in career 300-yard passing games (9), 200-yard passing games (21), passing yards (8,457), attempts (1,235), completions (693), passing touchdowns (48) and total offense (8,215) when he left early for a short-lived NFL career.
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Final thoughts: What’s reasonable to expect?
Okay, that’s a lot of data just to say that even big, strong-armed 5-star QBs come with no guarantees.
The ratings game probably works way better than it did even 5 or 10 years ago, but predicting how high school athletes adapt to college remains a crapshoot. There’s a chance that in a year or 2 Penn State fans are begging for Beau Pribula — the high 3-star QB from York, Pa., who joins Allar as an early enrollee this semester — to start.
But for now, let’s answer the questions posed in the headline.
Could Allar start from Game 1 in the fall? Yes, of course he could. He enters college with more size than the 6-foot-4 Hackenberg had as a teenager. He’s blossomed from little known player to 5-star name brand with a meteoric rise from his sophomore season to now. If he can keep up that pace of improvement, he could rocket to the top of the depth chart.
Should he start from Game 1? No. None of the 4 5-stars who started in his college opener had a 6th-year senior in front of him coming off 3 seasons as the starter. If Clifford stays healthy and doesn’t change his mind on returning, he’ll start. And he should. Giving Allar too much too soon is more likely to stunt his growth than accelerate it.
If not Game 1, then when? A lot depends on how well Clifford plays and how much Penn State wins. If Allar wins the QB2 spot in camp, I’d expect him to get game time in Week 2 against Ohio and Week 4 against Central Michigan at the least. If the Lions are out of the Big Ten race after playing Ohio State in late October, maybe Allar starts in November at Indiana or the next week at home against Maryland. By Nov. 12, Penn State might be looking for ways to entice fans to show up at Beaver Stadium — and starting Allar would be a good one.
I can imagine scenarios in which he plays a lot (like McCarthy at Michigan, who participated in 11 games this season behind Cade McNamara), maintains his redshirt by playing in 4 of less games, or doesn’t play at all, though that’s highly unlikely.
Whatever happens, we’ll all be riveted to this drama as it plays out over the spring (Blue-White game is April 23) and summer. Let’s check back in come August, when Allar will be old enough to vote, smoke and maybe lead a Power 5 offense.