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SAUBER: Examining impact of Penn State likely losing quarterback to transfer

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Michael Johnson Jr.

Penn State football is potentially down to four scholarship quarterbacks after redshirt freshman Michael Johnson Jr. reportedly entered the transfer portal.

Johnson Jr. was signed by the Nittany Lions and head coach James Franklin as part of the 2019 recruiting class, along with fellow QB Ta’Quan Roberson. He was rated as a four-star dual-threat quarterback in the 247Sports Composite player rankings, which compiles ratings and rankings from recruiting sites to generate a composite score and rank players.

Here’s what Johnson Jr.’s decision to enter the portal means for the Nittany Lions.

A transfer was inevitable, based on history

Once Penn State decided to take two quarterbacks in the 2019 class, a transfer became a certainty. The Nittany Lions have taken two quarterbacks in a recruiting class four times since 2010.

In 2010, they took Robert Bolden and Paul Jones. Bolden transferred to LSU in 2012 after falling behind Matt McGloin on the depth chart. Jones eventually transferred to Robert Morris in 2012 after a position switch to tight end.

Penn State signed junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and five-star high school senior Christian Hackenberg in 2013. Both quarterbacks competed for the starting spot in 2013 before Hackenberg was named the starter prior to the start of the season. Ferguson transferred to Louisville following the season.

The Nittany Lions took two more quarterbacks in the following class when they landed signatures from Michael O’Connor and Trace McSorley. O’Connor was set to compete with McSorley after Hackenberg’s departure for the NFL after the 2015 season, but transferred a year before he would have that opportunity.

Then in 2019 the team took Johnson Jr. and Roberson. One of the two was bound to transfer considering the nature of the position and that they arrived on campus in the same class. With Johnson Jr.’s transfer, that means 4-of-4 classes that took two QBs in the past decade at Penn State had one ultimately transfer.

Still lots of depth: Penn State still has plenty of depth

The Nittany Lions may be down a quarterback, but they’re still in a good position moving forward. The team still has four quarterbacks enrolled at the university with a fifth on his way in next year’s class.

Starter Sean Clifford leads the group of signal callers, who are spread out evenly across four classes. The redshirt junior is expected to start in the 2020 season, and if all goes well, the 2021 season. Behind him are Will Levis, Roberson and Micah Bowens, who will all compete for the starting job once Clifford leaves, or if he relinquishes it due to poor play.

Those four will be supplemented by Christian Veilleux, a current high school senior, who is committed to the Nittany Lions and expected to enroll for the 2021 season.

The loss of Johnson Jr. will hurt from an upside standpoint, with his athleticism giving him a higher ceiling than any other quarterback in the room. But his departure allows Penn State to move forward with a clearer picture on who can potentially start in each class.

Outcome not neat and tidy: The actual outcome isn’t likely to be that neat and tidy, however, because of the nature of the position.

According to Max Olson of The Athletic, as of Dec. 17, of the 159 quarterbacks in the 2014-17 recruiting classes who didn’t change positions or medically retire with eligibility left, 97 have transferred.

Given the state of the position it would not be a surprise to see another decision to transfer down the road from a quarterback currently in the room.

Johnson Jr. may not have fit the new offense

Johnson could still be a star: While the quarterback’s decision to transfer isn’t likely to hurt the team in the long run, it could be a major “what if?” down the road. Johnson Jr. was the best athlete in the quarterback room and has the potential to be a game-changer at the position.

His next destination will likely dictate how much of his upside he’ll tap into, but if he lands at the right school, Johnson Jr. could be a star.

With that being said, reaching that upside won’t be easy. He must improve his accuracy and play within the pocket to reach his maximum potential, and he has to find a coach with the right scheme, which may not be present at Penn State.

Lions may be moving away from dual-threat approach: The Nittany Lions appear to be trending toward a more pass-heavy approach at quarterback, rather than the dual-threat approach the team has featured in recent years.

If that’s the case, and Penn State’s quarterbacks are running the ball less than they were before the addition of Kirk Ciarrocca as the team’s offensive coordinator, Johnson Jr.’s decision could be what’s best for him and Penn State moving forward.