Penn State will carry five scholarship quarterbacks into 2020 (so long as the transfer portal doesn’t interfere), but the one who got away still lingers.
Asked about the future of Penn State’s quarterback recruiting, Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director said, referenced Justin Fields, who once was headed to State College.
“Unfortunately,” Luginbill said, “he’s playing in Columbus right now.”
College football’s early signing period begins Wednesday, when recruits can sign their letters of intent and end the overwhelming process. Penn State is scheduled to sign 27 recruits, including one quarterback.
Micah Bowens, a three-star prospect from Las Vegas, will give the Lions five quarterbacks spread across four recruiting classes. Penn State likes its quarterback depth, which includes incumbent starter Sean Clifford. And Luginbill called Bowens the best athlete among the quarterbacks Penn State has targeted over the past four years.
But, as he pushes Penn State to join college football’s elite, is coach James Franklin recruiting quarterbacks at that level? That might be the next step in Penn State’s quest.
“I think that they probably want [quarterback recruits] to be similar in the intangible traits of what Sean Clifford and Trace McSorley both are, but maybe as athletic, if not more, than what Trace McSorley was,” Luginbill said. “So that you really kind of change the dynamic of how a team has to defend you, if they’re really scared of your quarterback’s legs and what that player can do to cause you problems.”
What could've been: For Penn State, that quarterback could have been Fields. Luginbill credited Franklin for being among the first coaches to find Fields at a camp and offer him. Fields committed to Penn State as a Georgia high school sophomore in 2016.
After that, Fields’ recruiting profile bloomed, and he became the nation’s second-ranked prospect (behind Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence) in the 2018 class. Fields switched to Georgia, where he spent one season, and ultimately transferred to Ohio State. There, he led the Buckeyes to the Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff and finished fourth in the Heisman voting.
“The longer you have a quarterback committed to you, and the further away he is from your footprint, the harder it is to sign him,” Luginbill said. “It’s like having a 500-pound marlin on the line, but he’s 500 yards away. And it is a struggle.”
Before Penn State played Ohio State, Franklin admitted to the struggle. He called the Fields loss “hard to shake,” a sentiment that can be applied across recruiting.
But it means more at quarterback. And it prompted Franklin to seek an answer.
“That’s where my conversations [began] with the administration about competing for everything, because when you lose a recruit, you want to know why," Franklin said before the Ohio State game. "… “It’s magnified when you lose someone, they go to somewhere else in the conference, and now you have to compete against that guy for three or four years.”
Five-star QB not necessarily required: Does Penn State need a five-star quarterback to reach the playoffs? Not necessarily. McSorley, who got the Lions close in 2016 and ’17, was a three-star prospect in 2014.
And LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was a three-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, when he committed to Ohio State in 2014. Then Burrow transferred to LSU, where he won the Heisman Trophy and is headed to the playoffs.
Clifford, a four-star prospect from Cincinnati, had moments of real promise in 2019, throwing for 22 touchdowns and rushing for five more. Clifford played the last month of the season with an undisclosed injury that limited his running capacity and caused him to miss the regular-season finale against Rutgers.
“Sean Clifford, considering the first year that he had, I think he surprised some people,” Luginbill said. “I thought he had some really key moments but also had some very youthful, inexperienced moments, which is to be expected.”
Other PSU QBs: Penn State had three quarterbacks this season with freshman eligibility: Will Levis, who started the Rutgers game, and true freshmen Ta’Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr. Roberson and Johnson each made the travel roster, and Roberson saw his first action late against Rutgers.
Bowens, from Bishop Gorman High, is the lone quarterback of Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class. The 5-11 Bowls is ESPN’s No. 8 dual-threat quarterback in its 2020 rankings.
“Now is Micah Bowens that answer right now? Time will tell,” Luginbill said, “Really good athlete, a sub-4.5 kid [in the 40-yard dash] who can run and can do a lot of impressive things. We’ll find out over time. He’s certainly going to be the best athlete of the quarterbacks that they’ve targeted over the last four or five years.”
In the rankings
Here’s how Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class ranks ahead of the early signing period.
ESPN: No. 8
247Sports: No. 12
Rivals: No. 13