Speaking to reporters for the first time since the end of the Nittany Lions’ season, Penn State coach James Franklin didn’t say his program would be actively shopping for a new starting quarterback, but he didn’t rule out the possibility, or endorse would-be third year starter Sean Clifford with absolute and unwavering support.
“We’re gonna be as aggressive as we have to be at every position to help our football program,” Franklin said when asked about the prospect of quarterback transferring in. “And if there’s something that makes sense and clearly makes us better. Then we’re going to look at it […] that’s a responsibility that we have to have for our entire organization and for every position.”
At this point Penn State and Clifford’s struggles in 2020 are well documented, and as the Nittany Lions bring in new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich from Texas it seems reasonable to question whether or not Franklin feels inclined to back Clifford for a third-straight year.
As the roster is currently configured Franklin may not have a choice. Clifford is Penn State’s best option at the position by a fairly wide margin and while backup Will Levis has a strong arm, he has been throughout the course of his career effectively a wildcat specialist with little threat to actually throw the ball on a weekly basis.
Farther down the depth chart, options are technically there, but Ta’Quan Roberson has not provided any onlookers evidence he is somehow the answer to Penn State’s inconsistencies at quarterback. Additionally incoming freshman Christian Veilleux is even less of a known at this point in time.
Who exactly Penn State might opt for in the transfer portal – let alone who might eventually enter the portal is unknown. It seems unlikely Franklin would nail down any incoming quarterbacks prior to an uncertain spring ball season as those practices often shake loose more potential candidates once team depth charts are more settled at quarterback hoarding programs like Clemson or elsewhere.
For those thick in the weeds of old Penn State news, a potential courting process much like in 2013 when then coach Bill O’Brien hosted potential transfer Danny O’Brien on campus may await Franklin. Although the quarterbacking O’Brien eventually ended up at Wisconsin.
Of note, the chance of finding a quarterback that comes in and is clearly head and shoulders above Clifford seems low at best. A returning starter still far more familiar with everything than a new and potentially unproven face.
“I’ve had a number of people reach out to us at every position,” Franklin said. “And we’re going to do our homework to make sure it makes sense for us.”
In the long run this will be Penn State’s and Yurcich’s biggest obstacle in 2021 and beyond. A system is only as good as its quarterback, and while Clifford’s 11-2 season in 2019-20 may often be forgotten, his performances in big games and otherwise up-and-down play in 2020 is not an episode Franklin will want to experience again.
So whoever ends up throwing the ball for the Nittany Lions this season, they’ll have to do it better than the past nine games.
“I think we feel good about the guys that we have,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to take the next step there. And I’m not telling you guys anything that I haven’t already [said to Sean]. Me and Sean have had a number of conversations. Me and Will Levis have had a number of conversations as well as with their families. We all understand that.”