Sean Clifford got some playing time in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky in January, but he’s the relatively inexperienced leader of Penn State’s offense now that Tommy Stevens has decided to transfer. JOHN RAOUX / ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO
On Thursday morning, I published a post about Tommy Stevens’ entrance into the transfer portal. Today, it’s a post about life at Penn State after Tommy Stevens.
Late Thursday afternoon, word broke courtesy of the Centre Daily Times that Stevens would not return to the Nittany Lions in the fall. So, the next step for Stevens is to determine where his next opportunity comes and how much he’ll impact that particular program. That comes later.
Now, though, we take another five-step look at what Stevens’ departure means for the Nittany Lions.
1.) There’s no longer a real quarterback battle coming in August.
Sure, OK…nobody has a starting spot locked up. Everyone has to go out and earn it. Nobody should assume anything. I know what the coaches are going to say, and they should say that. At the end of the day, technically, it’s all true in a way.
But Sean Clifford is going to be Penn State’s quarterback this fall, barring injury.
Clifford took the majority of first-team snaps in the spring, played most of the Blue-White Game under center, completed 11 of 19 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown, and actually led the Blue squad in rushing yards (31). Which is as much proof as we have that…
2.) Clifford might be enough of a fit for the Penn State offense.
This has been a bit of a concern with Clifford, whose perceived strengths more closely resemble Christian Hackenberg’s strengths than Trace McSorley’s.
But leading up to Blue-White, head coach James Franklin praised Clifford’s competitiveness, saying that it helped him hit the weight room hard, “change his body” and become a more capable runner.
“Because of his competitiveness and how prideful he is, he went from a guy who most people would list as a true pro-style quarterback to one who I think is a guy who is a legitimate dual threat guy who can hurt you in many ways,” Franklin said.
Last season, McSorley rushed for 798 yards. It’s sort of unrealistic to think Clifford matches that. While I don’t think there were as many designed runs for McSorley — who seemed to improvise well when plays broke down — as one might think the last few years, there were certainly more than you’d work in there for a redshirt sophomore who doesn’t have his speed or total grasp of the offense. But the question is, when the play breaks down, can Clifford make enough plays on the run? And maybe Franklin’s words and his Blue-White performance provide some hope in that regard.
If they don’t…
3.) Penn State’s quarterback room still looks pretty good.
Ideally, Stevens would have put a chokehold on the starting spot this spring.
He would have been a senior. He’s a tremendous physical talent. He has a strong arm and an unquestioned ability to move the ball on the ground. He’d have been a great bridge from McSorley to what really is a talented, but young and inexperienced, group of quarterbacks that would have been behind him.
Good as Clifford looked last year, he has thrown seven career passes. That’s…not a lot.
But, he’s uber talented, and some think he has a bright career after he leaves PSU.
When all is said and done, Sean Clifford is going to be the most talented/Pro Ready QB to come through #PennState in a long time. Kid has it all; Arm-talent, #NFL size, accuracy. Was the No. 1 overall prospect coming out of Ohio in his recruiting cycle. Future bright at #PSU
— Matt Lombardo (@MattLombardoNFL) September 15, 2018
Teams throw inexperienced quarterbacks into the starting lineup all the time and are fine. Ohio State will do that this season, and they’ll open the season ranked in the top 10. Clemson did it last year and won the national championship. Quarterbacks come in as freshmen more prepared than they’ve ever been, and this is Clifford’s third season in the system. He’ll develop.
But Penn State has some pretty good prospects behind him, too. Will Levis goes from fourth-stringer to backup this season, and he’s kind of a Stevens type, a massive guy with a big arm who can make every throw. True freshman Ta’Quan Roberson is a McSorley type who has a dual-threat skillset but keeps his eyes downfield in the passing game and can make things happen when things break down. Another freshman, Michael Johnson Jr., had a good spring game, even if he looked a little raw.
A true competition in August, something Franklin said would be necessary when Stevens was still in the fold, probably isn’t going to happen. But it would be a benefit for Penn State — and Clifford, frankly — if a legitimate challenger could emerge from that group.
If one can’t…
4.) Will Penn State be going through this whole process again soon?
Young quarterbacks work their entire high school careers to be big-time college players, spend countless nights dreaming of the NFL and national championships, and they know the best way to get there is to play major college football in the biggest conferences.
The drawback to that is, only 64 such starting jobs exist (65, counting Notre Dame). The competition for those roles is fierce, and Tommy Stevens found that out once he got to the point where McSorley was gone and he figured he should inherit the one of those 65 jobs he put time into earning.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Clifford is really good. Let’s say he stays in school for three more years — although, if he’s that good, he’ll likely be able to leave school with his degree after his junior season in 2020. What does that do to the construct of the Penn State quarterback room moving forward?
If Clifford is Penn State’s quarterback in 2021 — and that’s a long way off, but again, this is just for the sake of debate — Penn State will essentially have had three starting quarterbacks in nine years. This is not a job that is opening up a lot, and essentially, it puts a really good prospect like Levis in Stevens’ position. That could have an effect on recruiting, and it certainly will make the transfer portal popular with Nittany Lions quarterbacks who play behind the starter.
That’s going on everywhere, of course. But it’s something Penn State fans are going to have to accept as part of doing business. Which is enough to make you wonder…
5.) Should the transfer portal and the state of the quarterback position in college football ultimately change the way Penn State recruits QBs?
This is an interesting thought I’ve been considering long before Stevens’ decision.
Franklin and his staff have said they’d like to bring in at least one quarterback in every recruiting class. They have Micah Bowens, a three-star prospect out of Las Vegas, verbally committed to the 2020 class. In the 2019 class, they added Johnson Jr. and Roberson. In 2018, they got Levis and, at one point, had Justin Fields (formerly of Georgia, currently of Ohio State) committed at one point. In 2017, Clifford joined. In 2016, the added the since-retired Jake Zembiec. In 2015, Stevens came in. In 2014, they added McSorley and four-star recruit Michael O’Connor, who left the program shortly afterward.
That’s every one of Franklin’s recruiting classes including at least one quarterback.
That puts you at four, maybe five, scholarship quarterbacks on every roster. Certainly, Penn State isn’t going to look to go less in the near term, until the real effects of the transfer portal are sorted out. But I come from a baseball background, and baseball front offices are always looking for ways to maximize roster use and sort out inefficiencies in past thinking. In five-to-10 years, are we going to be looking at rosters with that many scholarship quarterbacks, considering how many of them conceivably could look to transfer each season, and to increase the chances quarterbacks have to legitimately compete for a starting job?
Or, are we going to be looking at rosters with a few more scholarship quarterbacks on it, to compensate for potential losses?
Fact is, we don’t know where this is going, because the transfer portal is so new. Essentially, players are free agents now, considering the amount of waivers granted to players wishing to play immediately this past offseason. It’s an intriguing discussion, one that is certainly going to evolve as the years pass and the transfer portal settles in.