Friday, March 5, 2021
Home » News » Columns » Penn State Football: Will Levis’ Run at Quarterback

Penn State Football: Will Levis’ Run at Quarterback

Ten quarters.

That’s how long it’s been since Penn State quarterback Will Levis threw a pass.

It came against Iowa on November 21, on a fourth-and-2 from the Penn State 49, in the waning seconds of the first half, with PSU trailing by 10. The pass was incomplete, a lofty toss to Jahan Dotson that sailed helplessly out of bounds along the Penn State sidelines.

Iowa took over on downs and 46 seconds later the Hawkeyes led 24-7.

Levis, who had started the game against the Hawkeyes in place of a floundering Sean Clifford, was 13 of 16 for 106 yards in the first half.

Levis started the second half as well, but in the course of four plays he was sacked twice, fumbled twice, losing one of them (his second lost fumble of the day). Shortly thereafter, Clifford was back in as QB1.

Levis has not attempted a single pass since, as Penn State — in the person of Clifford — has thrown it 72 times.

Not that Levis hasn’t played. He has. He’s run the ball 23 times — including 17 against Rutgers on Saturday. But no passes.

Why? Here’s the reason, I think:

Penn State’s new offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, is simply trying to gain yards, score points and win games right now. Long-term offensive identities, NFL dreams and short-term egos be damned. Ciarrocca said as much in answer to my question on a Zoom presser last Thursday:

‘We’re trying…we’re doing what we think gives us the best chance to win the game on Saturday — period,’ Ciarrocca said. ‘And what fits our players’ strengths.’

And right now, where there’s a Will, there’s a way. One of Penn State’s biggest offensive strengths is Levis and his straight-ahead, coming-right-atcha battering ram runs.

So, in Piscataway, N.J., on Saturday, Levis ran the ball those aforementioned 17 times in his team’s 23-7 win against Rutgers. Which is nothing new.

Over the past four games, as Penn State has gone 2-2, Levis has been the Nittany Lions’ leading ball-carrier, when it comes to number of runs. The breakdown, acknowledging that running back Devyn Ford missed the Michigan game due to a death in the family and most of the Iowa game after an injury:

Levis – 56, Keyvone Lee – 51, Ford – 30, Clifford – 29, Caziah Holmes – 23. Contrast to the first three games of 2020, when Levis had just two carries and did not play against Maryland.

QUITE THE RUSH

The Levis rundown against Rutgers, where his rushes went for 14, 13, 12, 7, 4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 0, -1 and -4 yards. He totaled 65 yards, averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

Seven of his runs came on first down. (Of his 58 runs in 2020, 39.7% have come on first down.)

Six went for first downs. (He has 18 on the season, a per-rush rate of 31%.)

Three came in true short-yardage situations, when the Nittany Lions needed a yard or two for a first down. He was 3-for-3. The other 14 came on downs when PSU needed five or more yards.

Levis’ first run came in the first quarter, with the score tied 0-0, when he converted a fourth-and-1. The last came in the tail end of the fourth quarter, when he gained a yard on a second-and-22.

We know Levis did not pass. But Clifford did — 22 times, plus eight carries.

When asked about the paucity of Levis passes after the game, his head coach, James Franklin pointed at least in part to the rain at the start of the game and the gusting winds throughout the contest. (Rutgers attempted 32 passes, completing 18.)

‘We got to mix some passes in there, there’s no doubt about it,’ said Franklin. ‘But on the same hand, the weather was significant today. It affected both offenses. There’s no doubt about it. We have to mix some passes in there with Will in the game to make sure they respect it.’

Clifford let out an audible guffaw when it was gently implied that Levis was not a good passer and the new Levis ‘Falcon’ package is — despite its lofty name — simply ground-oriented.

‘We can throw the ball in the package,’ Clifford said. ‘Will can throw, obviously. Will has a great arm. We have that capability. But there’s just certain looks we get when we get in the package and certain looks that come out of it. It’s just game planning.’

And the plan these days is for Levis to run, as Franklin explained on Saturday — but, again, noting that it wouldn’t hurt if his Complementary QB did throw the ball on occasion.

‘Yeah, it’s primarily been a short-yardage offense that we’ve been using to run the ball,’ Franklin said, ‘whether it’s four-minute whether it’s short-yardage, third and 1, fourth and 1. That’s obviously been the plan from the beginning. But we would like to mix some things in there, there’s no doubt.’

FRIES LIKES HOW HE SHAKES

After the win over Rutgers, on Zoom I asked veteran Penn State offensive lineman Will Fries if he realized The Other Will carried 17 times and did not pass. Fries kind of chuckled.

‘Yeah, that I didn’t know,’ Fries said. ‘That’s not my decision. That’s up to the coaches and stuff like that. But I know he’s a good runner, so if you put the ball in his hands we’re going to move the chains.’

I also asked Fries how Levis compared to former Penn State’s quarterback Tommy Stevens, who after four seasons as a runner-passer-receiver transferred to Mississippi State in 2019, and is now a practice squad QB for the Carolina Panthers.

‘They’re both physically imposing guys,’ Fries said. ‘They’re tall, big and strong. Whether Will is in the game or no matter who is in the game, we are going to have confidence in them and we’re going to move the ball and have a successful play. When Will runs the ball and runs someone over, it’s exciting. It gives the whole line more confidence and it’s more energy for us. It’s definitely a role you want to embrace and take advantage of the downs with Will.’

You can’t think about the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Falcon without thinking about the 6-5, 235-pound Lion.

Statistically, their Penn State careers as QBs-in-waiting and -running, are pretty similar. Beyond that, both are bright guys, amicable, ever hopeful, great teammates and good interviews. Tough, too. Heck, both have their own play packages named after carnivores.

After coming from Indiana as an early arrival in 2015, Stevens redshirted that season, then appeared in 20 games in 2016-18 after being beaten out for the starting job by Trace McSorley in 2016. He faced a significant injury that impacted his contributions in 2018, and kept him from being anointed the starter outright after the spring of 2019.

After arriving from Connecticut, Levis redshirted in 2017, then appeared in seven games in 2019, starting against Rutgers last year after Clifford was injured. Ironically — or not — Levis also ran 17 times (for 108 yards) in that game, in addition to completing 8 of 14 passes for 81 yards, with a TD toss and a pick, as the Nittany Lions won 27-6.

Here are their Penn State career numbers (note the completion percentages); Levis has more quantity, Stevens had better quality:

WILL LEVIS

Run — 109 for 399 yards, 3.66 ypc, 4 TD

Pass — 55 of 94, 548 yards (58.51%), 2 TD, 2 INT

Total — 164-947, 5.77 ave., 6 TD

TOMMY STEVENS

Run — 76 for 506 yards, 6.66 ypc, 8 TD

Pass — 24 of 41, 304 yards (58.54%), 4 TD, 1 INT

Receive — 14-62, 4,43 ypc, 2 TD

Total — 114-872, 7.65 ave., 14 TD

Few head coaches actually want a situation where their two quarterbacks are both playing with regularity, save for Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints. (And that’s because he has Taysom Hill.) Franklin has preached that for years at Penn State, leaving his starter — be he named Hackenberg, McSorley or Clifford — in the game deep into the fourth quarter of contests that have been decided one way or another.

At Vanderbilt, Franklin was a staunch one-quarterback man. He shared a bit about his QB MO as recently as last week.

‘You don’t really want a quarterback controversy,’ Franklin said. ‘Or you don’t really want the situation where you’re having to go back and forth, because obviously that means something’s not going well.’

The Nittany Lions’ 2021 season, which opens Sept. 4 at Wisconsin and includes a Sept. 18 date with Auburn in Beaver Stadium, will be Clifford’s fifth at Penn State and Levis’ fourth. Had Clifford put up stellar numbers in 2020, he might be looking at declaring for the NFL Draft as a two-year starter.

That’s pretty unlikely at this point. The Nittany Lions have two, maybe three games (if they go to a bowl) remaining in this season, so it is too early to ask Levis about his plans for next season — he’ll enter next year with two seasons of eligibility.

Still, in a media session last week (watch it here), Levis provided a bit of insight into his mindset after earning the starting job and then losing it in the course of one afternoon.

‘It was pretty disappointing and frustrating, but throughout that game I was still supportive of my teammates,’ Levis said. ‘I was that guy on the bench Sean could come to and talk to. But I tried to not let it affect me.’

He also said that patience is a virtue, and one that Franklin preaches time and time again.

‘It’s big with our culture and buying into what we believe in here as a team — which one of the biggest things is just trusting the process and sticking to what works,’ Levis said. ‘I’ll continue to stick to my formula, which has proven to work for other people in the past, and trust that what I am looking for will eventually come to me. And (I’ll) pursue team goals and not individual goals, and let those individual goals come without trying — sticking with the process for the team, continuing to work by butt off and trusting that good things will come eventually.’

If those good things include a starting gig at quarterback at Penn State that lasts longer than a random start, Levis may have to be content for another year with being a complementary football player, one who sublimates his QB dreams for those of the team. If Cliff returns, and retains the starting job — it sure looks like he has steadied the boat — that would mean Levis is looking at being a one-year starter at PSU in 2022. If he wins the job.

This is not to push Levis out the door. But, soon, it will be a germane question to ask him about his future.

THE WILL OF LEVIS

So, it is significant to know what he has already put on the record in that regard. Which takes me back to late spring 2019, when I asked Levis for his opinions about the transfer portal, especially as it relates to being a quarterback.

His answer is below (the full Q&A is here).

 “You look at that their situations, and in a lot of them (the decision) is the right one,’ Levis said. ‘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,’ Levis added. ‘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.”