Tommy Stevens prepared to step in as Penn State’s starting QB
STATE COLLEGE — Tommy Stevens knows all about waiting his turn, so the fact that Penn State’s prospective starting quarterback couldn’t do much during spring practice was nothing new.
That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for the dual-threat signal-caller who sat out most of spring ball, recovering from December surgery to correct an unspecified injury that dogged him most of last fall.
“It is tough, obviously,” Stevens said. “I want to be doing everything, but with the exception of the spring game, there are no games in April, so it’s all about being healthy for the season.”
When it begins, someone will have to replace the program’s all-time winningest quarterback Trace McSorley, who narrowly beat out Stevens for the starting job in 2016. And while Stevens is the most experienced quarterback on the roster, competition has emerged from Sean Clifford, who led the first-team offense all spring.
Penn State coach James Franklin expects the competition to truly begin when the team starts training camp in August.
“Tommy understands it’s his turn now to step up, and Sean feels that way,” Franklin said. “Two guys that have played a lot of football, been around a lot of football, been a part of the program, understand the expectations and the standards.”
While Stevens has the experience edge as a fifth-year senior, he hasn’t played a lot of quarterback. Instead, Penn State’s coaching staff found other ways to work the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder into the game plan while McSorley’s career unfolded.
The Indiana native has completed 24 of 41 passes for 304 yards with a touchdown and an interception — mostly in mop-up duty — but has lent his athleticism as a receiver and ballcarrier with 14 catches for 62 yards and 76 carries for 506 yards.
He’s scored 10 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns. Six of those came in 2017, when his wide-striding speed and short route-running added more dimensions to a dynamic offense averaging 460 yards per game.
“I think my athleticism and my ability to bring other things to the table in the past could help me in the future,” Stevens said. “So it’s going to help me when I run the football, and it’s going to help me when I throw the football just based off of seeing how guys cover you.”
But Stevens’ 2018 season started on a bad note. He suffered a foot injury during winter conditioning and missed spring practice. He began the season on the injured list, missing five of the first six games.
Clifford, more of a pocket-passer, backed up McSorley in that span and took a place in Penn State’s record book. He went 5 for 5 for 195 yards with two touchdowns in cleanup duty and his 95-yard touchdown pass to Daniel George against Kent State is the longest completion in school history.
“Accuracy in my game is what I pride myself on,” Clifford said. “Putting the ball where it needs to be.”
Clifford was 6 for 12 for 80 yards in the spring game for the Blue Team.
The 6-2, 218-pound Clifford, who describes himself as the “most competitive player on the team,” said he feels like the starter right now but only by default. He’s eager for Stevens to return to full-contact.
“I would say that it’s going to be as intense as we make it,” Clifford said. “I think, obviously, we’re trying to put a bunch of pressure on each other to get each other better.”
Stevens said he’ll focus on getting better physically the next few months. He feels close to 100 percent and pushed back on the emerging narrative that he’s injury-prone.
“Up until this point last year, never missed a practice,” Stevens said. “In high school, never missed anything. Played a lot. I wouldn’t say that durability is an issue. I guess it was just never really fixed the right way the first time. It was fixed right this time. I’m glad it was fixed right and I’m ready to prove my durability, my worth. I’m excited to do that.”