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Penn State’s Quarterback Battle: What Will Levis Has to Say

by on July 21, 2019 6:00 PM

Think it’s obvious that Sean Clifford will be Penn State’s starting quarterback on Aug. 31 against Idaho?

You could be wrong.


To The Man Who Counts, James Franklin, it’s obvious there’s a battle for the job in 2019.

CJF said so twice in his first five minutes of addressing the media the other day in Chicago.

“Obviously question marks at the quarterback position with a competition between (Sean) Clifford and (Will) Levis…,” Penn State’s head coach said in his opening remarks.

Sixty-seven seconds later, Franklin played the obvious card again (and again…):

“Obviously whenever you lose a quarterback that played as many games and started as many games as Trace McSorley did for us and was able to win at such a high level, obviously there’s question marks going into the season. But we’ve been fortunate to be able to recruit extremely well. Very confident in the way we developed that position, as well, and we think we’re going to have great competition. 

“We’ve got two, what we would consider veterans in Sean Clifford and Mr. Levis, that are going to have a great competition this camp, and have really had that all summer, including spring ball… we’ll make the decision when the decision has been made, when it’s obvious to everybody who our starting quarterback is going to be.” 

Sounds like an open competition to me.


Which makes the 18 minutes I spent interviewing Levis, a redshirt freshman, back in late May (long after Tommy Stevens departed), when Penn State held a mini-media day on its practice fields featuring only players who finished their first season at Penn State, all the more germane.

That was Levis’ first media avail in a year at Penn State. So I wanted to spend as much time as possible with him, not only listening to his answers but to see how he carried himself (comfortable, quiet confidence); to assess the depth of his thinking (strong and pretty candid, especially for a frosh); and to see how big he really is, sans pads, face-to-face (he’s a big dude, at 6-3, 234).

I also wanted to see if Levis had “it.”

I know a third of an hour in an artificial setting ain’t much to go on, but I am a big believer in Malcom Gladwell’s Blink theory of gut instinct and rightfully-earned intuition, especially in this instance — I’ve taught college students for 20 years and have known PSU QBs for twice that long. My take: Levis is impressive, even when he’s not throwing a pass.

Witness this little Levis nugget about Tommy Stevens’ departure: “But it came down to how excited I was for this year, knowing that my approach will stay the same — but, in reality, my opportunities will be a lot more vast than if he had stayed.”

Or this one, about quarterbacking the first unit in the spring: “It was really, really cool.”

With Franklin officially putting the QB position up for grabs — obviously‚ despite Clifford’s extra year of experience and HOF moments in mop-up time last season — what Levis has to say, and how he thinks, is of even greater import.


So, here’s a sampling of what Mr. Levis said that day, minus some comments he made about how Penn State’s offense should not change in 2019 with either him or Clifford at QB. “I don’t see the offense changing one bit,” is how he Willed it in a story I wrote about that earlier this summer. (Read it here.) 

(The first word in Levis’ first answer is an obvious coincidence.)

Did you expect to be competing for the starting job this early?

LEVIS: “Obviously, when you’re a freshman you come in a little nervous. Even last year, I wanted to approach everything as if I was going to be the starting quarterback. That was everyone’s mentality. Coach (Ricky) Rahne made that clear, whether you’re fourth or fifth on the depth chart or first.

“Trace made that clear to us, too. You want to come into every meeting, every practice thinking you are the starting quarterback. You’re not going to pay any less attention since you’re not starting. I got tips from Trace about how to approach games. You don’t want to be caught off guard when it is your time. You want to be developing that physical progress, that mental progress, that emotional progress throughout your career so that when your time does come, you’re ready.

“So, I’m not surprised at all. When it became a reality, it felt a little different. It hasn’t changed the way I approach things. It’s just a little more excitement. I know that this season can be big for me. I just have to take every day one day at a time, and I know that whatever I do every day is going to be a positive toward that goal of mine.”

Did you see it coming that Tommy (Stevens) was leaving?

LEVIS: “I didn’t see it coming, personally. I had something a little bit in the back of my mind that maybe he was thinking that might be something he kind of wanted to do. Honestly, I wasn’t completely sure.

“I’ve talked to him a bunch, but there’s not really much I can say on the matter, other than I hope he kills it out there. He’s a great guy, a great player, and one of my really good friends. I know he can be a dominant quarterback in college.

“It was weird seeing him go at first. It was weird hearing that information. But the next thing I thought of, I was really excited. That kind of gets another year for me. I thought about it a little, I was confused a little bit. But it came down to how excited I was for this year, knowing that my approach will stay the same — but, in reality, my opportunities will be a lot more vast than if he had stayed.”

How much did you run with the 1’s (first team) in the spring? What was that like?

LEVIS: “Obviously going in and with Tommy out with his injury, I was with the 2’s initially. I was kind of peppered in with the 1’s here and there. There was a practice where Sean was sick, so I was with the 1’s all that day. It was really, really cool. It was great getting some first-time live action with those guys. It was very cool to see that I could go in there with the first-team offense and handle those guts. That was big for me: ‘I can do this.’ ’’

How has the competition been with Sean?

LEVIS: “Sean and I are really good friends. No competition ever gets in the way of friendships like that. Coach Rahne brought it up, telling us that when Trace and Tommy were competing for the starting job, you want there to be a competition on the field, but it has to be different when you are in meetings and off the field.

“Every day we come out for workouts and make sure we take the leadership roles — not only pushing ourselves, but the people around us too. We need to be accountable for our actions and those of others, since we know that as a quarterback we are the leaders of the team. We need to make sure everyone is approaching workouts with the right mentality.”

After one year in the program, how prepared are you to compete for the starting job?

LEVIS: “This past spring was so much more comfortable, so much more enjoyable than last summer camp. I know the information in front of me. Every day last summer camp was a new install and I was just bombarded with everything. It was overwhelming. This spring, with installs I had already seen everything before and I knew in the back of my mind I knew what to do.”

How would you describe yourself?

LEVIS: “I think I’m pretty independent. I like to have fun. I’m a funny guy — at least I think so.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been competitive. Almost too much. I I camped here (attended Penn State’s football camp) when I was in eighth grade because we had a connection here with one of the previous coaches — my mom (Beth, a two-time All-American soccer player at Yale) went to college with Coach (Bob) Shoop.

“I remember listening to Coach Franklin speak. I think his exact words were, ‘Compete in everything you do, whether it’s a football game or playing chess against your grandma. You want to kick their butt.’ That kind of stuck with me.”

What are your thoughts on the transfer portal, especially as it relates to quarterbacks?

LEVIS: “You look at that their situations, and in a lot of them (the decision) is the right one. I think it’s a great opportunity these kids have where they’re not restricted by coaches’ opinions where they should go or just the rules in general. I think it’s great.

“I think there are a lot of positive things to it and a lot of negative things to it. But for the most part, from what I’ve seen, if you want to get the best opportunity for you and your future and want to reach your goals, they’re taking advantage of it. If they don’t want to wait to play one or two years here — or you want to play three and get as many years as possible — then that’s the right thing to do for them. I think a lot of it makes sense. I understand where they’re coming from.

“Obviously quarterbacks are the cornerstone of a team. It’s not like receiver, where six-seven receivers can play in a given game. You want to find a team that you can be the guy for. If you feel your situation might be better somewhere else, as opposed to where you are currently, then I’d say go for it. Some situations require more thought than others. 

“From the outside, I might disagree with someone’s opinion. But I don’t know everything that is going on with that person — and neither does anyone else in the media. That’s why I feel bad for some of the kids who get bashed for making certain decisions, because everyone isn’t aware of what’s really going on.”

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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