Preseason training camp opens for the Penn State football team on Friday.
One of the most burning questions heading into the season is this: Is there really a competition at QB, and what should fans expect?
Unless you’ve been living under a Beaver Stadium-sized rock, you’re probably well-aware of the impact the offseason had on quarterback. But let’s quickly sum it up: In February James Franklin said, although everyone had to earn his spot (including returning starters), that Tommy Stevens was the No. 1 QB entering the spring. Immediately following the spring, Franklin said he could not name the starter and that quarterback would be more of a “true competition.” Less than a week later, Stevens transferred.
When Stevens was on campus, quarterback was considered a two-man race. But with Stevens gone ... well ... Franklin intimated it’s still a two-man race, just between Sean Clifford and Will Levis now.
So let’s break it down:
Is this a "true competition?" Not really. But it’s hard to fault Franklin for wanting Clifford to earn the job instead of it simply being handed to him by default. What’s the worst that happens as the result of the competition? Either Levis is pushed a bit more and Clifford has slightly more motivation ... or there’s no change.
Neither QB sees the position battle as a slight because their expectations were entirely different from Stevens’. Clifford’s mind-set should certainly ease any fans’ concerns. “This is the most confident and most ready I’ve ever been in my life,” he said earlier this month.
Clifford is more experienced, more polished and more of a leader. Levis hasn’t taken a snap in a game; Clifford played in four games and backed up Trace McSorley at times. So, yes, the odds of Levis beating out a healthy Clifford for the job border on zero. But, even if this is a competition in name only, odds are it’s beneficial to at least one of the QBs, too.
Can Clifford lead the offense? Clifford is a wild card to fans and reporters in a few areas. We’ve seen limited snaps and can’t truly understand how well he can read a defense, react to pressure, stand in the pocket or take off running. But leadership has never been in question.
In high school, Clifford made it a point to be the first commit of the 2017 recruiting class by pledging in July 2015, just a few months after his high school sophomore year. He told the CDT before he arrived on campus, “I always wanted to commit early and be that leader in that class.” He was integral in recruiting his teammates and holding that class together. He was also his high school’s first-ever two-time captain.
But his most notable act of leadership came immediately following Stevens’ spring transfer. During a team meeting, Clifford stood up and confidently told his teammates: “There will be no drop-off in the quarterback position.”
Linebacker Micah Parsons told reporters it was like a scene out of a movie. “He promised the team in front of everybody,” Parsons said. “Everybody just rallied to him.”
Added offensive lineman Will Fries: “That was definitely a mature and really good thing to do.”
(That sure doesn’t sound like a move a QB2 makes, by the way.)
What should fans expect? Clifford is not as mobile as McSorley. Now that the obvious is out of the way, let’s clarify what that means: Clifford is not expected to rack up 170 carries like McSorley last season. But this is an RPO offense that partially hinges on a quarterback’s athleticism — and Clifford knows he can’t just rely on his arm. His feet are important, too.
That’s something he and the strength staff have been working on.
“The strength staff’s done a great job helping me take my 40 down,” Clifford said earlier this month. “They’ve also helped me prepare for running situations, getting bigger up top so that way I can take those hits.”
When Clifford first arrived on campus, Franklin admitted he was concerned that Clifford checked all but one box — whether he boasted the athleticism to keep defenses honest in the RPO offense. At the time, he was running the 40-yard dash in the 4.8s.
Now? “In our last testing event, I think he tested faster than Trace did,” Franklin said during Big Ten media days in Chicago.
Maybe don’t expect 51-yard touchdown runs through the heart of the defense. But don’t expect the rushing totals of a Christian Hackenberg (minus-242 career rushing yards) either. Clifford is much more balanced. And, as Franklin noted, Clifford can always read the defensive end or outside linebacker and, instead of running the ball, he could have the option to throw to the flat or hit the slot or tight end.
Since becoming a head coach in 2011, Franklin only allowed one quarterback to ever run fewer than 75 times in one season or to run for negative yardage — Hackenberg, whom he inherited. And it’s not as if the concept is foreign to Clifford; he rushed 153 times for 560 yards and 12 touchdowns during his senior high school season.
Whether Clifford is a boom or bust remains to be seen. But he’s a strong-armed QB who should be able to take advantage of what Franklin termed “as fast of a team as I’ve been around.” Although Clifford is different in obvious ways from McSorley, the offense shouldn’t have to be rebuilt to play up to the new QB’s strengths.