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Penn State Football Continues to Struggle With a Quarterback Shortage

by on February 06, 2015 1:00 AM

With Penn State quarterbacks over the past half-decade or so, you win some and lose some.

Actually, you lose a lot.

Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, the wins have been big. As in BIG.

Over the past four seasons, Matt McGloin (17) and Christian Hackenberg (25) have started 42 of Penn State’s 50 games.

Combined, in their Penn State careers they’ve completed 1,014 of 1,770 passes for 12,317 yards, with 78 TD passes and 47 interceptions. And together, they’ve had 33 200-yard games and 14 300-yard games.

They’ve been a dynamic pair, even though they were never teammates. McGloin has been in the NFL for two seasons, and Hackenberg will be in The League soon enough, perhaps after the 2015 season and very, very likely as a first-round pick.

But then there are the losses. Over the past 30 months, eight quarterbacks have left the Penn State program while still owning eligibility. (In the most recent case, Michael O’Connor enrolled in January as a freshman and left in December, having never taken a snap in a game.)

Five were on scholarships: Rob Bolden, Paul Jones, Steven Bench, Tyler Ferguson and O’Connor.

Three were walk-ons, each with a strong high school resume and possessing serviceable skills: D.J. Crook, Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour. Crook completed 6 of 9 passes for 57 yards and a TD in 2014, and transferred at season’s end.

(Not included in that group are career walk-on scout team players, Garrett Venuto and Shane McGregor, who stayed their allotted tenure. McGloin was originally tagged to be in that group. He showed them.)


Left standing for the upcoming Penn State season are three scholarship quarterbacks: Hackenberg, a true junior; Trace McSorley, a redshirt freshman and a dual-threat signal-caller; and Tommy Stevens, a true freshman who’s been on campus for less than a month. McSorley didn’t play last season. Stevens, a three-star prospect from Indianapolis, averaged 172 passing yards per game, with 16 TD passes, as a high school senior. He also gained 842 yards on 172 carries, scoring 10 rushing touchdowns.

James Franklin likes him. “I called his dad two nights ago just to say everybody’s in love with your son,” the Penn State coach said on Wednesday. “He’s just one of these kids that doesn’t take things for granted any more. He’s very appreciative. I get text messages from him. I got three text messages in the middle of the night from him saying how much he loves Penn State, how appreciative he is of the opportunity. I want more of our guys to be like that. Just to be appreciative.”

And why not? As recently as November, Stevens was committed to Indiana, whose last winning season was in 2007. Since then it’s gone 34-64.

Throw in sophomore walk-on Billy Fessler, and Penn State will enter the 2015 season with four quarterbacks. And when spring drills begin in March, that will bring to eight the number of quarterbacks with whom Hackenberg has shared a meeting room in his 20 months on campus. That revolving door is not an ideal situation for Franklin and the Nittany Lions, especially if Hackenberg declares for the pros -- certainly a very real possibility.

“You’d like to project at five” scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, said Andy Frank, Penn State’s director of player personnel, on Wednesday. “If you were to take one a year, you’d get five across the board.”

Frank later added: “That’s the ideal number. We won’t always get to our ideal numbers. We’ll be plus on some, minus on others. And that could be the case at quarterback.”

There are a few reasons why four and possibly five scholarship quarterbacks on an 85-man roster makes sense, said Sean Fitz of Lions247. Fitz and Blue White Illustrated’s Ryan Snyder are head and shoulders above the field when it comes to reporting on Penn State’s recruiting efforts. Fitz knows what he is talking about.

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“It’s not because you want to be four-deep every game,” Fitz said this week. “It’s because guys are going to transfer. That’s the fact of the matter in college football today. There’s only one ball and guys are going to take their ball and go home. You saw it this year (with O’Connor) and you’ve seen it in the past at Penn State. You almost have to overload at quarterback, but at the same time it’s hard to sign two guys because of the competition factor.” 

It hasn’t helped that two big fish got away over the past three recruiting seasons, and Hackenberg’s brief career has spanned them both.

Lion Heartbreak One: Former head coach Bill O’Brien went hard after quarterback Jake Waters for the Class of 2013. A two-year starter for national champion Iowa Western Community College, Waters would have given Hackenberg some real competition. Waters opted for Kansas State, though, and led the Wildcats to a 17-9 record in 2013-14, threw for 3,985 yards, set a slew of KSU records, and was a semifinalist for both the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards.

O’Brien ended up scrambling and settled on Ferguson, a JC transfer from California. After spring drills in 2013, Steven Bench – McGloin’s seldom-used backup as a freshman in 2012 -- transferred to South Florida when Ferguson vaulted ahead of him. Ferguson followed suit in less than a year.

Lion Heartbreak Two: Last May, four-star quarterback Brandon Wimbush of Saint Peter’s Prep in New Jersey verbally committed to Franklin and Co. The marriage didn’t last. By October, Wimbush had backed out of his promise and verbally committed to Notre Dame. He officially signed with the Fighting Irish on Wednesday, prompting this gush from ND coach Brian Kelly: “Brandon Wimbush is a special, special young man … He’s a great student, a great leader. You can’t say enough good things about him.”

Wimbush threw for 3,151 yards and 36 touchdowns as a high school senior, according to He was Hackenberg’s heir apparent and a big loss for Penn State.


That leaves Penn State with Hackenberg, who’s played nearly every snap over the past two seasons – save for the 2013 Ohio State game -- plus two green youngsters and a walk-on. One Wednesday, Penn State wide receivers coach Josh Gattis, who is the offensive recruiting coordinator, said he wasn’t worried.

“We’re at a good point as far as where we want to be recruiting quarterbacks,” he said. “We want to be in a position to recruit a quarterback every year. Some years we may be in position to take two. And that’s a situation we’re at for next year – the opportunity to take two.

“Quarterback is a position where we are always going to recruit every year. We’re close to where we want to be, but we’re probably one off from where we’d like to be. We have a depth concern from that standpoint. We have to continue to build. That’s been an area where we’ve been under the number with oversigning at maybe defensive back or D-line or O-line. Eventually, give us a year or two and we’ll work it all out and make sure we all are at our number.”


Gattis was talking about high school quarterback Jake Zembiec without mentioning his name.

Penn State already has a verbal commitment from Zembiec, the No. 1 player in the state of New York despite missing most of his junior season at Aquinas Institute in Rochester with a broken wrist. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder passed for 1,932 yards and 26 TDs while leading his team to the Class AA state championship with a 13-0 record.

“You want to be the coach’s guy in your class if you’re a quarterback,” Fitz said. “And Zembeic is the coach’s guy.” Because of Zembiec’s status as an early signee and four-star quarterback as a sophomore, it may not be all that easy for Penn State to get a second high-quality quarterback. But, said Fitz, there’s a way around that.

“You can find a guy who can play another position if quarterback doesn’t work out,” Fitz said. “The way high school offenses are going, you often put your most athletic guys at quarterback. For example, Trace McSorley is a guy who could wide receiver or play safety. ...Ultimately, a kid just wants to find his way down to the field.”

Gattis knows it won’t be easy to get another big-time QB to sign in February 2016.

“Recruiting at any position, when you are recruiting multiple guys, it’s always a challenge,” Gattis said. “You want to make sure that you provide the kids with the right information so they want to come in and compete. We want to create the most competitive environment here is in college football.”


Admittedly, though, few quarterbacks have committed to Penn State thinking they were – or are – able to unseat Hackenberg. 

“Recruiting with Hackenberg on the roster is pretty tough,” Fitz said, “because you know he’s The Man. There’s no question about it. But you have sell that when he’s done, it’s wide open.

“When he leaves, the opportunity will be there. And if he leaves after this season, the opportunity is there even sooner. That was a big reason they got Wimbush in the first place. He saw that.”


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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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