Michael Robinson returned to Penn State last week, about the same time quarterback Tommy Stevens said he decided to stay.
A parallel can be drawn between the two, one that Stevens evidently saw.
Wednesday, Stevens announced that he will remain at Penn State rather than seek a transfer, lifting a sizable weight off the team during spring practice. Stevens, a versatile 6-foot, 5-inch redshirt junior, and starter Trace McSorley give the Lions the best 2018 quarterback combination in the Big Ten, one that makes them a title contender.
Similar to Robinson situation: Stevens’ situation also brings to mind Robinson, who he was a three-year backup to starter Zack Mills in the 2000s. Robinson played running back and receiver instead of the position he wanted, very nearly transferred in 2002 but, after exploring his options, stayed to guide Penn State to the Big Ten title in 2005.
Now, Stevens plays a position (known as the “Lion”) created just for him instead of the position he wants. He admitted contacting other programs following last season but, after exploring his options, stayed to back McSorley for one more season before getting his chance in 2019.
The common denominators? Coaches who fit their backup quarterbacks into other roles with the team, and players who accepted that becoming the starting quarterback was worth the wait.
“There are lot of people taking the path of least resistance and transferring when times get tough or when adversity hits,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Wednesday. “… Obviously, as a coach, I am elated that Tommy is going to stay with us. But more than that, for how he handled the process, I’m proud of him.”
For Stevens, playing backup in a system he knows well at a school he “loves” outweighed the possibility of starting for two years somewhere else. And that merely was a possibility, since Stevens would have had to learn a new system and beat out incumbents by August.
Patience difficult for backup QB: Patience might be among the most difficult skills for backup quarterbacks to acquire. Robinson, who visited State College last week to interview Saquon Barkley for NFL Network, admitted to having none of it in 2003-04, when he was Penn State’s most dynamic offensive player.
But former coach Joe Paterno convinced Robinson that his future was best served at Penn State, which had recruited a group of talented freshmen receivers to join him in 2005. Robinson flourished, was named the Big Ten’s MVP, finished fifth in the Heisman voting and led Penn State to an Orange Bowl win over Florida State.
Stevens should have lots of weapons in 2019: Stevens has a similar view of 2019, one that’s even more clear from a team perspective. Penn State has recruited two classes of elite offensive talent, including a pair of freshmen five-stars in running back Ricky Slade and receiver Justin Shorter.
Stevens will be the experienced center of a gifted offense as a fifth-year senior. That’s a coach’s dream.
"Lion" designation: Little wonder, then, that Franklin sought to treat Stevens as a starter last December, when he devised the “Lion” designation. And no doubt new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will route Stevens into even more situational packages this season to take advantage of the quarterback’s speed and athleticism.
“We said, ‘Look, let’s explore this. We don’t ever want you leaving unless it’s the right situation,’” Franklin said Wednesday. “If it’s the right situation for you and your family, we’re going to be as supportive as you can possibly imagine with this.
“But if you don’t find the situation that just makes complete sense, then you should come back. Because you know what you’re getting with us as coaches, you know what you’re getting with your teammates and you know the scheme.”
In need of seasoning: Stevens, who has not practiced yet this spring because of an undisclosed injury, needs game seasoning at quarterback. He has thrown only 30 passes in two seasons, most when outcomes were decided.
Stevens has shown considerable ability to run, with both power and agility, and some savvy throwing the deep ball. But he needs to face more must-convert drives against first-team offenses. And he hasn’t gone 12-for-12 on third down, as McSorley did in the Fiesta Bowl.
Then again, neither did Robinson, who willed the Lions to 11 wins in 2005. Paterno convinced Robinson that waiting would pay. Franklin, it seems, did the same with Stevens.
Sharing the Rodgers example: In 2005, Franklin coached receivers with the Green Bay Packers, who that year drafted Aaron Rodgers to replace Brett Favre. Rodgers did not start at quarterback for the Packers until 2008.
Franklin has shared that example with both Stevens and running back Miles Sanders, who played behind Barkley for two seasons. The coach said “there’s a lot of value to that.”
“I think it’s like anything in life,” Franklin said. “It’s how you perceive the situation, how you embrace it.”
Having Stevens embrace the situation might be the biggest development this spring for Penn State.