Thanks to latest stellar recruiting class, Penn State's contingency plans at QB run deep
In light of Tommy Stevens’ recent surgery, Penn State’s greatly enhanced recruiting prowess seems more important than ever.
Not only did James Franklin and staff bring in a top 10 class loaded with 4-star talent, they convinced 7 of the 18 members of the 2019 class to enroll in January. Yes, 7 of those recruits will be taking classes within a couple weeks. Not only that, they’ll be around for strength training and spring workouts. Among those are two 4-star quarterbacks who could be in the mix right away.
Earlier this week, Penn State revealed that Stevens — a redshirt senior-to-be and the heir apparent to Trace McSorley — would miss the Citrus Bowl, staying home to recover from an unspecified surgery. According to Franklin, Stevens played through a mid-season injury after missing the Lions’ first four games with a right foot/ankle injury.
Under Franklin, Penn State is secretive about injuries. It is unknown if the surgery is related to the foot/ankle issue or was for another problem that cropped up as Stevens played limited snaps backing up McSorley and in the “Lion” role.
“Tommy had an injury about the midpoint of the season that you guys weren’t aware of,” Franklin said at a media session Wednesday in Orlando. “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. He was able to do that and now this will allow him, hopefully, to be full-go for spring ball.”
If healthy, Stevens should enter spring workouts as the man to beat for the quarterback job. He’s bided his time behind McSorley, never complaining and happily learning any and all “Lion” plays that would get him onto the field.
Best case scenario, he’s totally healthy for his senior year and proves to be a bigger (6-5, 240), stronger version of McSorley. Through 23 games played, Stevens has completed 24 of 41 passes for 304 yards and 4 TDs, with only 1 INT. He’s run for 506 yards on 6.7 per carry. He has 14 receptions for 62 yards and 2 TDs.
In short, Stevens displays everything Franklin looks for in a quarterback.
If, however, Stevens doesn’t heal as quickly as expected or struggles upon his return to the field, it’s good to have contingency plans.
Penn State is loaded with contingency plans, starting with redshirt freshman Sean Clifford, who will back up McSorley against Kentucky on Tuesday just as he did for the first month of the season. Clifford is 5-for-5 for 195 yards and 2 TDs, including one that went for a school-record 95 yards. Granted, those astronomical stats came in mop-up duty against inferior foes. Still, Clifford looked poised, comfortable and in command.
Will Levis, the lone QB in the 2018 class, waits in the wings. He might need to show something in a hurry, because those wings are getting crowded. It’s unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility, that one of this year’s QB recruits sees the field in 2019.
Michael Johnson Jr. (6-2.5, 192) and Taquan Roberson (6-0, 185) rank 8th and 9th nationally among dual-threat QBs in this class, according to 247Sports composite rankings. They were both confident enough to sign on not only to compete with sophomore-to-be Clifford but also with each other in a suddenly very crowded Penn State quarterback room.
If anyone needs proof that talented freshmen can compete right away, Micah Parsons and Pat Freiermuth make the case in slam-dunk fashion. Need more convincing? How about Ricky Slade, PJ Mustipher, Jahan Dotson and Jake Pinegar, all of whom burned redshirts this year.
Next fall, Penn State shouldn’t have as much need to press true freshmen into immediate action. Brandon Smith, a 5-star recruit ranked the second best inside linebacker in the country, should be in the mix right away. It’s possible he’ll be the only one.
But Johnson and Roberson, like Smith, are set to enroll in January. That head-start could play huge dividends if the Stevens succession plan hits a snag for any reason.
Also, if the “Lion” role survives Stevens’ promotion, someone would have to fill it. Johnson and Roberson offer skill sets much more suited to that role than Clifford or Levis do.
It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here. The Lions have plenty of options.
The Penn State offense thrives on options and misdirection. Stevens seems to be the obvious starter at QB when Idaho visits Beaver Stadium come Aug. 31. But if unforeseen events unfold, the Lions should still be in good hands with any option Franklin chooses.