Tommy Stevens is deep into his fourth year at Penn State — 47 months in all since arriving on campus in January 2015.
And, in some ways, he’s still an enigma.
A big one, at that, too.
Stevens, who entered Penn State on the heels of wisdom teeth surgery and thus weighed in at 184 pounds, is now a robust 250. And he’s 6-foot-5, an inch-and-a-half taller than when he arrived.
(For reference’s sake, freshman linebacker Micah Parsons, Penn State’s leading tackler in 2018, is 6-3 and 240, while rush man Yetur Gross-Matos is 6-5, 259.)
In fact, in some ways, he’s a BMOC — big man on campus.
Backup quarterbacks are always popular, but when Stevens enters the game, there’s a buzz of excitement that rushes across the crowd.
And across the University Park campus, the personable Stevens is a favorite of many, many students. Just walk down The Mall on Monday morning and do a random sample of coeds wearing Penn State sweartshirts. They'll tell you.
But…and here’s a big but:
As Trace McSorley wraps up a stellar three-year career as the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback, there is some question as to whether Stevens is the heir apparent. Or whether the nod might go to redshirt freshman Sean Clifford, who has connected on all five of his pass attempts in 2018 for 195 yards, two touchdowns — one of them a 95-yarder to Daniel George — and a QB rating of a curve-busting 559.60.
McSorley’s three-year reign was preceded by Christian Hackenberg’s three-year stretch as a starter, which means that assuming PSU goes to a bowl game and McSorley makes the next three starts, the Hack-Trace duo will have been the starting quarterbacks at Penn State for 78 consecutive games. And, as you know by now, head coach James Franklin is not usually one to pull his starting QB even after the game is no longer in doubt — either way.
(The Penn State all-time list for starts by a quarterback is led by Tony Sacca, with 40, followed by Hackenberg, with 38, and McSorley with 37 — and counting.)
No wonder it’s been tough to get a pass in edge-wise.
You have to figure that Clifford will get a shot to compete for the starting job, just as Stevens did against McSorley. And just last week, Franklin shared a few public misgivings about the PSU RPO offense, at least as it pertained to how well it complemented the Nittany Lions’ defense and special team style. A spate of fourth-quarter fails over the past three seasons have pointed to some serious kinks in the RPO armour.
On Saturday against Wisconsin, Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne showed lots of new wrinkles with the Nittany Lion offense, from four-wide receiver diamond sets to a penchant for playing ball control to largely eschewing the deep ball. Lest we forget, though: Although Penn State won, 22-10, the Lions scored only 22 points — its mediocre per-game average for the past six contests (that’s half the season).
It would not be surprising if the Penn State offense underwent some semi-serious revamping over the offseason, among its staff, its scheme, philosophy and starting lineup (as we’ve already seen at wide receiver and tight end).
Franklin and Rahne, who have collaborated on QBs and offensives for 10 years, at Kansas State (with QB Josh Freeman), at Vanderbilt (with QB Jordan Rodgers; Aaron’s brother) and at Penn State (with McSorley, who Rahne targeted while still at Vanderbilt). Rahne could stay as O-coordinator, or not, but it's possible there will be some shuffling around in Penn State’s offensive coaches room come December or January.
And there’s no certainty Stevens will get the starting nod in 2019, especially if you look at the recent template of elite — yes, elite — programs and top-notch head coaches across college football.
In 2018, presumptive and real starters at QB have been losing their jobs left and right, at Alabama, at Clemson, at Notre Dame, at Georgia (where there’s a Bulldogfight), at… well, you get the idea. Franklin the bench-maker certainly does.
The QB Conundrum is one reason Franklin will earn his salary in 2019, when he’s slated to paid in the neighborhood of $16,000 each and every day.
STEVENS: HE’S NOT LYIN’
Among all that, where does Touchdown Tommy Stevens fit in?
We still don’t know.
It’s likely he’ll have the pole position when spring drills start, but thus far it has been tough for Stevens to see the field. After redshirting in 2015, he’s appeared in just 21 of the 37 games Penn State has played since 2016.
And of those games, he’s had more than one touch and more than one yard gained in only 13 contests. (Four in 2016, five in 2017, four in 2018.)
In his Penn State career, Stevens has run almost twice as many times (73) as he’s thrown the football (39).
There’s a reason for all that: McSorley.
McSorley, a fifth-year senior, beat out Stevens for the starting quarterback job in August 2016. And since then, he’s led Penn State to season records of 11-3, 11-2 and 7-3, as well as countless passing, touchdown and total offense records as well — all the while staying stunningly healthy. Until very recently.
Compounding Stevens’ fate was a foot injury that kept him out of much of spring ball as well as the first four games of the 2018, and five overall.
He has emerged in a big way over the past two weeks, as he spelled an ailing McSorley against Michigan and got plenty of run vs. Wisconsin. With an emphasis on run. Stevens has thrown the football only nine times in 2018 and has attempted just 19 passes over the past 16 games.
Against Michigan and Wisconsin, Stevens has carried the ball 17 times for 77 yards, with a eight-yard TD against the Wolverines, Penn State’s only touchdown in The Big House.
He did attempt four passes against Michigan, completing three and throwing a pick-six — for which he was promptly and unceremoniously pulled. On Saturday against the Badgers, Stevens lined up all over the field, but didn’t throw a pass.
He was involved in a bizarre lost fumble late in the game against the Badgers, which in some ways has been a microcosm of how Franklin and Rahne have used Stevens in 2018 — a bit haphazardly. Stevens was yanked twice against Michigan and was back to — mostly — his Swiss Army knife “Lion” position on Saturday, although he lined up at QB a number of times, sending McSorley to split wide on those occasions.
A Lion. But a somewhat reluctant one, said an honest — and no way lyin’ — Stevens last week.
Quarterback “is the position I want to play,” said Stevens. “Like I said in the past, I’m obviously willing to do whatever is best for the team, whatever is going to be the best way to help.
“But,” he added, “I don’t want to be mistaken. I want to play quarterback. I didn’t come to Penn State to be the Lion.”
MROB: THE ORIGINAL LION
When it comes to multi-taskers on Penn State’s offense, you need to turn on The NFL Network.
That’s where Michael Robinson — who captained Penn State to Big Ten and Orange Bowl titles as the conference’s offensive player of the year in 2005 — now resides. MRob, who also captained the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl title, was the original offensive mix-master — far beyond what such precursors Jimmy Cefalo and Mike Guman accomplished.
In his first three seasons at Penn State (2002-04), Robinson played running back, wingback, wide receiver and the slot, and had six starts at quarterback, mostly when regular starter Zack Mills was sidelined with an injury.
He wasn’t always happy, though; like Stevens he came to PSU to play QB. The numbers MRob compiled in his first three seasons as an early-day Lion were staggering, when looked at in retrospect:
He entered his senior season in 2005 with more than 2,600 total yards of offense and 18 TDs, as a passer, runner and receiver. In his first three years, MRob ran 206 times for 831 yards, with nine TDs. He caught 52 passes for 629 yards and three TDs. And he was 86 of 194 passing, for 1,181 yards, 11 picks and 6 TD passes.
As a senior, he made a seamless switch to playing only quarterback — throwing for 2,350 yards and running for 806, with a total of 28 touchdowns and 11 victories against just one loss (27-25 to Michigan, after leading late in the fourth quarter).
So, there’s a roadmap for Stevens.
It’s too late to follow it as a Lion a la MRob.
But it should give Stevens — and Franklin and Rahne — hope that one-year starters at quarterback for Penn State can, indeed, be enigmatic. In a good way.