For everything he was for Penn State these last four years, Tommy Stevens will always be looked at in terms of what he could have been.
In terms of what he could have done.
In terms of what he always wanted to be.
On Friday, Stevens did what everyone expected he’d do. He officially announced he’d play his graduate transfer season at Mississippi State. He gets a chance to start at quarterback in a major conference, for a contender, in a system he is familiar with, for a head coach he knows so very well.
This is the way of college football now, especially if you’re a quarterback with some ability and an eye toward the NFL. Every young prospect is looking for an opportunity. Every program is looking to improve. The transfer portal — not to mention some relaxed standards from the NCAA when it comes to granting waivers on immediate playing time — has essentially created a quasi-free-agent class every offseason.
Once Stevens’ situation at Penn State went from a sure starting job to a competition in which he’d merely been the favorite against sophomore Sean Clifford, he became a free agent. That’s his right, and he exercised it.
He did what was best for his career, in his own mind.
In all reality, he absolutely did what was best for Penn State, too.
Finally, Tommy Time
Good kid: Something everyone should realize about Stevens: He’s a good kid; a patient kid who just couldn’t wait any longer for a guarantee.
In the statement he released Friday announcing his transfer to Mississippi State, he said he was “forever thankful” for his time at Penn State, which he called “nothing short of an amazing experience.” To a man, he was beloved by his teammates, a guy who had a major leadership role with the Nittany Lions the last two seasons. That’s rare, considering the quarterback playing ahead of Stevens was one of the most productive players in program history, an unquestioned leader during a resurgent era.
All too often, a leader and player the magnitude of Trace McSorley perhaps unintentionally would overwhelm any impact his backups could possibly have on their teammates. Stevens still managed to carve out a major leadership role.
Penn State lost a lot when Stevens decided to transfer, and it would be understandable if fans were frustrated that he left. After all, he effectively ended a quarterback competition that 1.) he likely would have won, and 2.) would have made Clifford a better player in the process of winning it. Now, Penn State goes into the summer with a redshirt sophomore at quarterback who is easily the most experienced signal-caller on the roster, at a position where they haven’t been this inexperienced in at least three seasons.
If Stevens succeeds, it's a win for PSU: Thing is, if Stevens has a successful campaign with the Bulldogs this fall, it should be taken as a victory in the grand scheme of things for Penn State.
No matter how things go without him for the Nittany Lions.
All about the spin
Everything in the college football world is judged pretty much by how it affects one thing.
Perception is everything, and for the sake of the argument, let’s say Stevens does some things he had not yet done at Penn State: He stays healthy. He becomes an accurate thrower, one who is as strong in the passing game as he is on the run. Let’s say his talent takes him where he wants to go, to the top of the wish lists for NFL teams looking for a 6-foot-5 quarterback with great wheels, a cannon for an arm and a season in which he put it all together.
How is that not good for Penn State?
Joining Moorhead: Sure, there’s an obvious answer to that: He’d have put it together for a different program. But that program has some striking similarities to Penn State’s. Its head coach, Joe Moorhead, built Penn State’s offense from a few scribbles in a notebook to one of the most powerful in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It’s largely the same style of offense Penn State says it wants to use into the future, even without Moorhead calling the plays.
Don’t think Penn State won’t pitch Stevens as one of their own on the recruiting trail if he finds that kind of success, the same way coaches are pitching Moorhead’s offense as a vehicle to get young recruits the two things they want most out of college football: Numbers, and recognition. Add Stevens to McSorley, and perhaps to Clifford when it’s all said and done, and it’s going to be very difficult for young recruits to argue that Penn State doesn’t develop its quarterbacks. In fact, head coach James Franklin can say, he has developed every one he has ever used during his time in Happy Valley.
Only, one happened to show it in Starksville.
PSU players understand his decision: Bottom line is, there’s a reason why so few Penn State players are upset with Tommy Stevens’ decision.
It’s because they understand it.
There’s very few reasons Penn State fans should feel any different about that.
If Stevens struggles there, then it would be clear Franklin made the right decision to insist on an open competition. If he doesn’t, Penn State will be able to pitch Stevens as another product of the system that has turned raw, young prospects into viable major college quarterbacks. Frankly, that’s something this program hasn’t had a chance to say all that consistently throughout its history.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.