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Penn State Football: A Note to Cliff on Being the Starting Quarterback

by on May 30, 2019 5:30 PM

Dear Sean:

It looks like the starting job is now yours. Welcome to The Club. And congrats.

It’s an exclusive group.

You’ll be the first QB not named Christian or Trace to start for the Nittany Lions in 79 games.

Likely, the job will be yours to keep for awhile. Since 2005, Penn State has had just seven starting quarterbacks — Trace McSorley (40 starts), Christian Hackenberg (38), Matt McGloin (18), Rob Bolden (16), Daryll Clark (26), Anthony Morelli (26) and Michael Robinson (18).

That group earned three Big Ten titles, went to two Rose Bowls and a dozen postseason games, and won 127 games, sometimes in some very trying situations. They never had a losing record.

In its entire Big Ten history, Penn State has had just 15 starting quarterbacks over 326 conference and non-con games. (McSorley had the most starts, with 40; John Sacca, with three, the least.)

It’s quite a fraternity. A quick overview:

Old-schoolers like Chuck Burkhart and John Hufnagel set the standard for winning over the past 50 years, going a combined 43-3 in 1968-69 and 1971-72.

There have been Heisman Trophy runner-ups (Chuck Fusina). National champions (Todd Blackledge and John Shaffer).And fFirst-round draft picks (Blackledge and Kerry Collins).

In the Big Ten era, Penn State quarterbacks have been conference player of the year (Collins, MRob and Clark), offensive player of the year (Collins and MRob), and freshman of the year (Hack).

You get the idea: Being a QB at PSU is a big deal. And you’re Next Man Up.

No pressure there, huh Cliff?

Five years ago, when you were just finishing your sophomore year at St. Xavier High School back home in Cincinnati, I wrote an article for one of those preseason mags about the joys and pressures of being The Guy at PSU after talking to some former Penn State quarterbacks. I’ve been thinking about that lately — with you thrust into the starting role, and all — figuring that their advice would be timely and given that your first collegiate start is less than 100 days away.

So I dug out that story, and boiled it down to the essence. And although you aren’t asking, I’m offering up what those guys had to say. I know you spent the last two seasons watching Trace handle the triumphs and trials with grace and diligence. But these voices may help prepare you as well.

You're an intense guy, I know, so this isn't meant to cause you any added anxiety. Look at it as online mentoring.

Just below is the best of what they shared with me. Let's call ’em Cliff Notes. Study up: The first test begins at 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 31, against Idaho in Beaver Stadium.

Best wishes,



Wally Richardson (21-5 as a starter, 1993, ’95-96): “I know Chuck Fusina, I met Chuck Burkhart. It may have been a different decade, but you were still a quarterback at Penn State and that’s something very few people have in common. It’s quite an honor to be part of that group.”

Michael Robinson (12-6, 2003-05): “If you look at all the guys who played quarterback, they’re great character guys. That was one of the things that impressed me when I was being recruited. Every former quarterback, the current quarterback, they have been good character guys. Just good dudes.”


Richardson: “I knew what I was getting into. One of the reasons I chose Penn State was for the opportunity to compete for national championships. You don’t get the chance to do that by playing the Little Sisters of the Poor. I wanted to compete against the best alongside guys who had the same type of ideals and competitive spirit to see how we matched up against our peers across the country. If you’re worth your salt, that’s where you want to be.” 

Matt McGloin (13-9, 2010-12): “To play at Penn State your expectations are already so high and your goals are already so high for yourself that when you become the starting quarterback you are kind of like, ‘OK, that’s what I wanted to be. I’ve always wanted to be here and I deserve to be here.’ My mentality was that’s always where I thought I would be.”

Matt Knizner (8-4, 1987): “In my case, it may be a little different than anybody else’s. I’m taking over an offense in 1987 where we just came through 22 regular season wins. We’re the team of the ’80s and all the sudden, ‘Matt, here you go,’ and the expectation is extremely high. And understand, my senior year we lost 32 kids, so when you got in the huddle, you’re looking at freshmen lineman, you’re looking at running backs that have never played. I had a couple other fifth-year players that were with me, but we didn’t have a lot of game experience. As a player and as a quarterback, you are responsible to try and keep this thing going for the program. So it becomes not just you, now it’s the program that I’m responsible for.”


Todd Blackledge (29-4, 1980-82): “I wouldn’t say I felt more pressure. I think you always feel, as a competitor, you always feel a pressure to perform, a pressure to do your best, to help your team and lead your team. That’s normal for everybody. I grew up in a football family. My dad (Ron) was a coach and I was around the game pretty much my whole life. So I understood that the quarterback is the most visible guy on the team. And he’s going to get more credit when things go well than he deserves and he’s going get more blame normally when things don’t go so well. I had an understanding of that before I even became the QB at Penn State.”

Christian Hackenberg (21-17, 2013-15): “I put a lot of pressure on myself, to be honest with you. I think it’s inner pressure. I try not to pay as much attention to all the outside sources and just rely on my coach. (In 2013) it was a lot with Coach (Bill) O’Brien and our game plan in what we wanted to do as a team. My biggest fear is letting my teammates down. That’s one of the things that sort of drove me throughout my whole athletic career. I try to be the guy that they want the ball in my hand sand they understand that I can get the team in the right play to be successful. That also carries on and off the field. You don’t want to let your teammates down off the field.”


McGloin: “Your social life takes a massive hit. I’m talking about going out, going to parties, hanging out with friends, staying out late. Even studying for me sometimes. If I had a game, sometimes I would need to focus on my playbook and my assignments before I would have to study. At the same time, I’m a student, but I’m also working the job as an athlete that requires so many hours per week. Therefore, I’ve got to sacrifice something.” 

Hackenberg: “I think that there is a perspective that football players in general, and especially the quarterback, live this lavish lifestyle where you go out every night and you have whatever girl you want coming over. It’s the complete opposite. There are classes, practice and what is expected of you in terms of being a team leader and getting guys in the film room, throwing to them. Whenever you can grab a second you turn on the film and watch five or 10 minutes. You’re sitting in your room and rather than taking a nap you are working on the game plan for that week. I think it really is a full-time job. With all that, you really only have a small amount of time to go out and enjoy yourself personally. You take that and that’s the one thing that you have. You cherish it. You take advantage of it as much as you can.”


McGloin: “You are an athlete-student – athlete first. I still got my degree. When you come to Penn State as a football player your responsibility is to play football. That’s it. You play football. You do well. Then you get your degree. That’s really what it is, especially at the quarterback position. Are you going to go into the media room on Saturday at 4 and say, ‘Well, you know I didn’t really have time to study coverage because I had a chemistry exam on Friday?’ No, you can’t do that. You have to be studying what coverages and blitzes they’re running and what to expect on third and 2 in the third quarter. You better know that before you know what the hell the oxygen symbol is. That’s what it’s like being a Penn State quarterback.”


Richardson: “I was aware of my guys. My body language or what I would say to them would have a profound impact on them, positive or negative. I tried to encourage guys and tell them we’ve been through this in practice.”

McGloin: “At the end of the day your team needs to respect you. Who’s going to respect a quarterback who isn’t confident in his abilities, who isn’t a little cocky, who doesn’t show he’s the man in the huddle? You want somebody who’s going to step in and say, “Hey, we’re scoring right now. I don’t care what it takes. Get it together. Somebody needs to make a play. I’m going to make a play. Let’s go right now.”


Blackledge: “Whether it’s on the field, off the field, in an interview, what you say, what you do, there’s so much more scrutiny now. You have to really be aware of that and be careful with that and recognize that that now is part of the deal as a college athlete. It’s very different being a college player now because of social media, because of the media attention, because of the access that people have to you is so dramatically different.”

Richardson: “The same people who tell you that you’re great after a win will see you downtown after a loss and tell you, ‘You guys suck.’ You have to take it with a grain of salt, because the people who build you up will tear you down.”

McGloin: “For me it would be the same, win or lose. I would have my hood up and sweatpants on and sneakers on and my book bag. I’d have my headphones on and I’d go about my business. People try to take a picture of you or you can hear them talking behind you. It puts me in an awkward spot sometimes ’cause I see that they’re doing it. I think I might have come off as rude because I keep walking, but it’s just how it is. Once Monday came around my focus was on that next opponent.”

Robinson: “I used the naysayers as motivation and as far as the pressure goes, you process it by working. You just go to work. You go to the weight room, you go to the meeting room to watch films. You call Jay (Paterno) at 1 o’clock in the morning and ask Jay about a squirm defense that Wisconsin was going to play. You prepare.”

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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