James Franklin hoped that Tommy Stevens would be “full-go” for spring camp when he announced the quarterback’s post-regular season surgery on Dec. 26.
Eleven weeks later, it’s clear the front-runner to replace Trace McSorley isn’t quite there yet.
Franklin announced on Wednesday, the first day of Penn State’s spring practice, that Stevens will be “limited” early on in camp. He and the staff will take a cautionary approach with the rising redshirt senior, who did not travel with the team to December’s Citrus Bowl.
“He will be able to participate, but I don’t know if it will be full-go,” Franklin said at his Wednesday afternoon press conference. “We’re dealing with our own doctors and trainers on campus, and he had the surgery off campus, so we’re communicating with his doctors, as well. We’re just trying to get everybody on the same page. ... Depending on how spring goes and how he’s doing, it could be full-go by the end of spring. But I’m not sure about that yet.”
This, of course, opens the door — if even only slightly — for rising redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford to become more of a factor. The big-armed up-and-comer, who threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns on five completions last year, is Penn State’s No. 2, behind Stevens and ahead of Will Levis.
It’s well-documented that Stevens bided his time as McSorley’s backup for three seasons, and he is now viewed as a linchpin of Penn State’s young 2019 squad. In February, center Michal Menet said Stevens and linebacker Cam Brown stood out as leaders during a hectic offseason filled with transfer portal news and coaching changes. And Franklin backed that up Wednesday, commending the quarterback’s commitment to the program yet again.
This time last year, Penn State fans were worried that Stevens might transfer to another Power Five program given his electrifying contributions in 2017 as the team’s all-purpose threat. Two seasons ago, the 6-foot-5 passer accounted for 408 total yards and nine touchdowns. But after playing through what Franklin and others have called a “significant injury” in 2018, Stevens’ production took a serious hit (230 yards, three touchdowns) and Clifford’s legend grew in his absence.
Clifford’s emergence and Stevens’ injury concerns (he missed all of last year’s spring camp with a foot injury) have fans expecting a full-blown quarterback competition this spring and in fall camp. Franklin said all positions will experience an open competition, a statement with both a level of truth and coach-speak to it.
Clifford will undoubtedly push for time. But Stevens should still have a strong grip on the No. 1 spot entering a camp in which he might not contribute much.
“Tommy understands, ‘Hey, I have to step into this role now. I have a responsibility to not only run the offense and to lead the offense,’ but also understand that Trace had instant credibility with our team for what he did in previous years,” Franklin said. “Tommy understands that it’s his turn now to step up.”
Backfield battle? Franklin was asked point blank if Ricky Slade — thought to be Miles Sanders’ clear successor — is the No. 1 back entering camp. The coach, at least on Wednesday, didn’t see it that way.
“I think it’s probably slashed,” Franklin said. “Ricky’s done some really nice things. But I think Journey (Brown) is also a guy that we have been really excited about since the high school process.”
Slade is a former five-star recruit and the No. 1 running back in the 2018 recruiting cycle. In nine appearances as a true freshman, the Virginia standout averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 45 touches and found the end zone six times. Slade is considered by many to be the front-runner to start Penn State’s opener because of the recruiting pedigree and how it translated in limited opportunities last season.
A three-star prospect and the No. 918 overall prospect in 2017, Brown didn’t possess the hype Slade had when he arrived in Happy Valley. But Franklin complimented Brown’s growth quite a bit.
“Patience is such an important part of this. And as long as you’re getting better, you’ve got a great attitude, you’re waking up every morning attacking the day with everything you’ve got academically, athletically and socially, at some point it’s going to happen for you. And I think that’s Journey,” Franklin said. “Journey’s always been really talented, but now a lot of these other things are falling into place to allow him to play with the confidence and the speed.
“Those two guys are both in a really good spot to go out and compete their tails off. Feel really good about those two guys.”
Personnel updates: Mac Hippenhammer is focusing on baseball “full-time” this spring and will not practice with Franklin’s Nittany Lions. The wide receiver — who Franklin dubbed a “returning starter” — was frequently featured in four-wide sets in 2018, catching six passes for 103 yards in 12 appearances. Hippenhammer, an outfielder, has started four of 13 games for the baseball team this season. “(Baseball) was always a part of the conversation with Mac,” Franklin said. “Had a lot of discussions and he’s going to concentrate on baseball full-time this spring. That’s what he’s doing, playing baseball. He’s Bo Jackson for us.”
Offensive lineman Juice Scruggs will miss spring camp after being in a car accident. Franklin did not get into details about the injury or injuries sustained by the rising redshirt freshman. Scruggs was expected to compete for the starting guard spot vacated by Connor McGovern. “Without getting into specifics, I’d ask you please to respect the privacy of the family,” the coach added.
CJ Thorpe is back on the offensive line, Franklin confirmed. Thorpe’s return from the defensive side of the ball was well-known, as offensive line coach Matt Limegrover named him one of his standouts in winter workouts, and Menet discussed the guard’s potential in February. “We really believe that CJ has got an unbelievable ceiling when it comes to being an elite offensive lineman,” Franklin added. “He’s got a very, very bright future.”