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Penn State Football: Third Down, Not Arm Strength, Will Help Determine Quarterback Race

by on August 15, 2019 3:00 PM

The question isn't really if Sean Clifford or Will Levis can throw the ball.

The question is what they'll do on third down in Columbus.

For Penn State football the Nittany Lions' quarterback competition is as much about what lies between the ears as it is the arms throwing the ball. They can both do that, but only time will tell how well they can read the game, and only time will tell what they might do under pressure.

In the eyes of coach James Franklin, that's the next step any quarterback has to take going from a backup to starter, from a player who has been around the system, but has yet to really play within it. 

"I think there is a difference between getting reps in practice and talking about situational football," Franklin said after practice on Wednesday. "How much we talk about four-minute, two-minute, drive-starters, earned first downs, and kind of how they all play out differently and the things that factor into it. There is a difference between talking about all those things and doing it in practice, it's another to be comfortable enough that you're not just out there in the stadium just running plays, you understand why we're running the play."

If Trace McSorley's leadership is the most obvious loss with the quarterback's graduation to the NFL, his eye for the moment is not far behind. McSorley's career may have had its fair share of hiccups, but behind every big play by Saquon Barkley or Mike Gesicki, there was a smart decision by McSorley. Remember that overtime win against Minnesota in 2016? McSorley's long run near the end of regulation set up the game-tying field goal. That's game sense, not arm strength.

And understanding those moments is what Franklin is hoping his quarterbacks learn to do.

"It's third-and-eight across the 50, how [is that] different compared to third-and-eight on the minus-30, things like that," Franklin added. "Early on there are so many things going on in your mind in terms of the play, the defense, that the situation that you're in doesn't always factor in."

"You want to get to the point where you know the play without even thinking about it, you can identify the defense and have a really good awareness in what the situation is. To me that's the big step, there is the one step when the game slows down for you and you can start to anticipate what the defense is going to do and the next step in the development is really understanding situational football and really how to manage it."

The good news for fans hoping to see Sean Clifford come out on top of Penn State's quarterback competition, however much of a competition it might be, Clifford thinks his ability to see what is in front of him, and what is about to happen is one of his strongest assets.

Time will tell if that is in fact the case.

 "I would say that visualization and preparation is my biggest strength [mentally]" Clifford told earlier this summer. "I always think that I'm gonna set myself up to be in the best situation possible when it comes to pretty much anything especially in game situations."

Check back in about two months.

"The biggest difference [between being a backup and starting] is just, I've really got to know what they're going to give me on third-and-three."


Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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