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The Young & the Restless: Inside Penn State Football’s 2019 Quarterback Room

by on July 28, 2019 7:00 PM

Call them the Young and the Restless.

And Energetic, Tight-knit and Fun-loving.

Promising.

And, yes, Inexperienced. Definitely that.

They are the players who will comprise the Penn State quarterback room in 2019.

Along with their mentor — offensive coordinator, chief play-caller and position coach, Ricky Rahne — they will be the Nittany Lions’ most scrutinized unit this coming season. By far.

At Penn State’s final high school football camps this summer, held Friday night under the setting sun on the practice fields adjacent to the massive white tent already erected for the Lasch Bash, those quarterbacks were everywhere.

Sean Clifford, wearing shades and sporting a McSorley-like scraggly, not-fully-formed beard, was helping Rahne record campers’ broad jumps. (There’s a bit of a nerd inside Clifford; Friday night, he was wearing a black fanny-pack in the small of his back; not sure that’s the hippest look for a starting Power 5 QB.)

Rahne and the redshirt sophomore joked like old friends. Which they are:

Clifford verbally committed to Penn State as a member of the Class of 2017 over four years ago, on July 13, 2015, the day before he turned 17. Rahne was the PSU QB coach at the time, and Clifford’s primary recruiter. It was five months before James Franklin hired JoeMo; seven months before the class’s second member, Yetur Gross-Matos, verbally committed; and ahead of eight verbal commits for the Class of 2016. No one can question Cliff’s unflagging loyalty to Penn State — he’s been aboard the Franklin Train for 1,476 days.

Later, Cliff laughed when — as the quarterback campers did passing drills — fellow quarterback Will Levis performed a tight, QB-in-the-pocket-dance to Drake’s “God’s Plan.” The chuckles may have been because Levis’s stepping style looked better suited for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”

 

That was followed by Clifford and then Levis, a redshirt freshman, trying out MMA moves on a bit overwhelmed freshman quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson. Both Clifford (6-2, 218) and Levis (6-3, 234) towered over Roberson (5-11, 190), who smiled throughout. Also hanging with the group was Isaac Rumery, a freshman walk-on quarterback from Clearfield.

QB roommates not in attendance were freshman Michael Johnson Jr. and redshirt senior Michael Shuster.

We can’t underscore the presence of Shuster enough. By happenstance, I sat with him and his father at the Mr. PA Football Awards last winter — he is a former winner after throwing for 9,700 yards and 108 TDs QB at Camp Hill. He is a savvy, polished and mature walk-on. Among the Nittany Lion quarterbacks, Shuster has been on the squad the longest, since 2016. Shuster has great bloodlines: his maternal grandfather, Dick Hoak, played football at Penn State from 1956-60, then 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hoak was the longest-tenured coach in Steelers’ history, serving as the running backs coach from 1972-2007. Michael’s fraternal grandfather is legendary politician Bud Shuster, a member of Congress from 1973 to 2001 and was King of the Roads for Pennsylvania as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

While Clifford is the favorite to earn the starting job, Levis has a shot at it. And the two freshmen will be in a battle for the No. 3 spot. So, it won’t be all fun and dance games when the Nittany Lions officially begin summer practice this Friday. There will be tension and competition, and that could extend not only into the 2019 season, but — as Buzz Lightyear used to say — “to infinity and beyond.”

It certainly had to feel that way for Tommy Stevens.

QB BATTLES ROYALE

Of course, that is the way of the portal world these days with college quarterbacks.

After all, at Clemson just last season, one week before his 19th birthday Trevor Lawrence unseated 22-year-old Kelly Bryant for the starting quarterback job. And further south in Tuscaloosa, the less-experienced Tua Tagovailoa took the starting job away from veteran Jalen Hurts. Bryant and Hurts are elsewhere in 2019, while Lawrence led the Tigers to the national title and Tua is Vegas’ favorite to win the Heisman this season.

Back in Happy Valley, for whatever it’s worth, these QBs like each other.

It’s hard to envision Hoss and Blackledge horsing around back in the early ’80s when Joe Paterno struggled to decide between two future NFL quarterbacks. Or, nearly a decade ago now, seeing McGloin and Bolden bonding at a high school camp.

Sometimes, Frenemies is the best you can get.

Since Stevens’ departure in the spring Rahne has preached a simple message to his cadre of quarterbacks: Competitors on the field, supporters off of it.

MROB AND MILLS

As Michael Robinson explained to me for a story back in 2014, it wasn’t easy co-existing with a fellow student who also wanted the job, the ball, the spotlight, the playing time and the reins that you so desperately desired. Even when that guy is Nice Guy Zack Mills.

In 2003, Mills started nine games at quarterback, while MRob started three games at QB and five at tailback. In 2004, Mills had eight starts at quarterback, while Robinson had three there, plus five more at wide receiver. (Talk about being “The Lion.”)

“Zack and I had a special bond — we both were booed during the same season,” MRob, whose Nittany Lions went 7-16 in 2003-04, said while not really joking. “After his senior season (2004), Zack and I went downtown to talk about it.”

Over a couple of beers, they unpacked their rivalry and their time together on the field, as starting quarterbacks and as backfield mates. They parted friends.

“We understood each other,” MRob shared. “Through the whole process of competing, I never wanted him to do badly. He could honestly say he never wanted me to do badly. We both wanted to play. If I’m Joe Paterno, what did I do? I put both of you guys on the field at the same time.”



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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