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Penn State Football: The (Good) Problem With No. 2 QB Tommy Stevens

by on August 13, 2017 9:00 PM

Tommy Stevens can run. (Boy, can he ever.)

But in 2017, he can no longer hide.

Penn State's backup quarterback has the potential to be one of the bigger surprises in Joe Moorhead's offensive bag of tricks.

But he isn't all that easy to miss. 

After all, he's 6-foot-4 and nearly 230 pounds. And come to think of it, he's not exactly hidden, either.

Watch this game tape from the Penn State-Iowa game last year:

In that game, Stevens lined up in the slot to the right and ran a jet sweep to the left, covering about 52 yards to go 13, while plowing over five Iowa Hawkeyes on his way into the Beaver Stadium south end zone for six points.

And then there's this tape of Stevens in the snow, sleet and rain against Rutgers. In that game, Stevens faked it to Andre Robinson, went off-guard, slid past a big Knight and went six yards for another six.

In all, Stevens carried the ball 21 times for 198 yards in 2016 — third-most for the Nittany Lions, behind guys named Saquon and Trace. Stevens averaged 9.4 yards per carry, had the two TDs and ran for nine first downs — an exceedingly high per-carry success rate.

Almost half of his runs — 10, to be exact — were for eight yards or more: They broke down, and he broke free, this way: -1, -1, 0, 1, 1, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 12, 13, 13, 18, 31 and 45 yards.

He can throw the ball, too — although he passed just three times in the 2016 regular season, completing a 26-yarder to Irv Charles for yet another first down and a 10-yarder to Irvin Paye. He did complete 17 of 24 passes for 216 yards in April's Blue-White Game, with three TD tosses.

TWO QBS IN 2017?

Penn State's offensive coordinator could have Moor(head) in store for 2017.

"We saw the touchdown that Tommy scored in the Iowa game," Moorhead told me when we chatted on media day last weekend. "We had it in some other game plans and there wasn't really a time that was right to get it into the game. It's something we're going to work on. It's something that if you game plan correctly and call correctly it's difficult to defend."

Defending two quarterbacks on the field at the same time can be a challenge. Stevens was in the game along with starting quarterback Trace McSorley when he scored against Iowa. There is the potential for more of that in 2017.

As I reported back in May ("Here's How Joe Moorhead Can Deploy McSorley & Stevens in the Same Backfield"), Princeton very effectively uses two quarterbacks on the field to run its sophisticated offense. In fact, the No. 2 Princeton quarterback last season, John Lovett, was the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year in 2016. Frequently lining up with starting QB Chad Kanoff, Lovett ran 98 times for 411 yards and 20 TDs, and caught 26 passes for 235 yards.

What I didn't tell you was this:

Moorhead knows all about the Princeton offense. (Boy, does he ever.) Studied it when he was head coach at Fordham. Had a hand in developing it. Worked with former Princeton O-coordinator James Perry and O-line coach Ed Morrissey to refine it. (Both coaches went to Bryant College in New England in the off-season.) You should know this about Morrissey: He coached the O-line at Oregon when Chip Kelly was the Ducks' head coach and spread offense savant, and in a number of sessions shared those principles with Moorhead.

What JoeMo will tell us is this:

"We have a great relationship with James Perry, who was the offensive coordinator at Princeton and he's now the head coach at Bryant. Eddie Morrissey was their offensive line coach. In our time at Fordham we would do staff visits. We'd go see them, they'd come see us. The two-QB package — we both discussed it and researched it. They moved on to make it a much bigger part of their package at Princeton."

But the scheme has stayed with Moorhead.

MORE TOMMY?

So, will it be Moor(head) of a priority to get Stevens in a game in 2017, whether singularly or with McSorley?

"There's a possibility," Moorhead said in response to my query. "I don't know if it's more of a priority. But as a coach, you want to make sure you're getting your best play-makers on the field to be successful. Tommy has a unique skill set. Part of the difficulty of getting him on the field is that there are a lot of other tremendous play-makers at the other offensive skill positions. It's a matter of it being the right scheme and right opportunity in a game. There is certainly a component of Tommy in the game or two quarterbacks in the game that we would be able to utilize his skill set."

Whether Penn State would tip its hand and unleash Stevens in a two-quarterback formation early in the season remains to be seen. After all, Stevens didn't carry the ball until the sixth game of the 2016 season.

But whether it's two quarterbacks in the game at the same time or one, Stevens is in a much better position to contribute in 2017 — if called upon. Much moreso than last year at this time, when he was in the process of competing with McSorley for the starting job.

"Tommy's just improved across the board," Moorhead said. "I think the one word that probably describes it best is maturity. There were some things mechanically we worked on with Tommy with his off-arm to tighten his release a little bit. But I think overall Tommy's approach to the game and his understanding of the preparation aspect of it is a critical component to his success.

"He's got tremendous physical tools. He's blessed with the ability to throw the ball well, and he's an awesome runner. But the mental part of it, he's made tremendous strides in the understanding of our offense. He's taken positive steps forward every day, and he's picked up where he left off at the end of spring ball."

WHAT TOMMY’S TEAMMATES SAY

It's not just Moorhead, the quarterback coach as well as the offensive coordinator, who's noticed.

Here's what one of Stevens' best friends and favorite targets on the team, senior tight end Mike Gesicki, had to say about Stevens back in December 2015 and then again last week — some 600 days later. Call it the journey from EA to A+:

Mike about Tommy, on Dec. 17, 2015: "He’s a good kid, he wants to learn, he's a competitor. He's always in Lasch. I was just in there last night and he and Juwan (Johnson) were there watching film. He's definitely a guy who wants to learn and get better. He's excited for the future and to get out on the field – next year or the year after. I live with him, so I see a side of Tommy no one else sees. When he is not doing football or watching film, he is planted on the couch, in front of the TV, playing Xbox for about six hours. He doesn't really move, unless I say, 'Hey Tommy, want to go get some food?’ Then he'll hop up and munch with me."

Mike about Tommy, on Aug. 9, 2017: "Tommy is becoming a very smart football player. He's understanding the X's and the O's. His football IQ has gone up a ton. He's not just out there being an athlete making plays. He's out there making plays not just with his feet and his athleticism, but with his brain and understanding all the concepts."

Stevens entered Penn State in January 2015 after a career at Decatur Central High School, outside of Indianapolis. Although he was the Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior, Stevens was not a big-name recruit. In fact, he originally committed to Indiana, but flipped his senior season of high school when Penn State went searching for an additional quarterback after Brandon Wimbush decommitted to Penn State and opted for Notre Dame instead.

That was about 40 pounds and a lot of late nights studying the playbook ago. In addition to Gesicki, Stevens' teammates on defense have also witnessed of The Tommy Transformation.

"Tommy's looked comfortable for awhile," said senior linebacker Jason Cabinda. "He has taken complete command of the offense and he's really emerging as a leader as well. As a backup quarterback, that's really unique in a sense.

"He's making plays after plays. (In a recent practice) he had a 70-yard scramble for a touchdown run. The dude is fast. He's not thinking, he's just playing. That's his style of game. I just love how he plays."



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