The different circumstances in Tommy Stevens’ two Blue-White Game performances made all the difference for the redshirt sophomore quarterback from Indiana.
A year ago, in the midst of a contentious quarterback competition with Trace McSorley, Stevens floundered in his debut, throwing for 48 yards on 7-of-14 passing and running for 51 yards on 12 carries while McSorley, who had a year of backing up Christian Hackenberg under his belt, threw for 281 yards and 4 touchdowns. Stevens’ White lost to McSorley’s Blue 37-0. On Saturday, after McSorley led Blue to a pedestrian first half where the only scoring came off a pair of field goals from Tyler Davis, Stevens rose to the occasion in the second half, throwing for three touchdowns and 216 yards on 17-of-24 completions, leading Blue to a 27-0 win.
While Stevens shined on Saturday, redshirt freshman Jake Zembiec found himself in a similar situation that his teammate was in a year ago, going 2-of-8 for 14 yards and no first downs in the first half.
In between Stevens’ two spring games was a regular season where he capitalized on his limited opportunities and a spring that saw him develop immensely.
“I don’t really feel pressed or nervous. I feel prepared to go to work and play hard every day,” he said. “Obviously there is always room to improve and I need to watch the film because I like to critique myself and be hard on myself but I feel like I really improved and had a much better spring than last year.”
One skill set Stevens has particularly improved is his passing ability, which was on full display on Saturday.
During the season, when he wasn’t in at the end of blowouts, Stevens’s primary contributions came on the ground, where he developed a reputation as a hard-nosed, full throttle runner. He ran for 201 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 21 carries last season while only attempting three passes. But on Saturday, Stevens flashed the other half of his reputation as a dual threat quarterback with his three scoring strikes.
“I really feel like I improved the passing aspect of my game this spring,” he said. “I obviously worked on becoming a better runner too but when you’re a quarterback, you’re gonna have to throw the ball eventually.”
Along with the tangible improvement that Stevens showed on Saturday, his year as a backup also brought a changed mindset. While last spring he was focused on winning playing time, he now is more preoccupied with his team winning games.
“Last spring I may have taken more reps with the one’s but I feel like I understand my role a lot better now,” Stevens said. “I don’t want this to be about me. I just try to come in, do my job, and do whatever I can to help us win, whether that be being the starting quarterback or my role running the two’s and making sure those guys are prepared. Obviously you didn’t see too much of me this season but I knew I had to push Trace and now some of the other two’s took on starting roles so I took pride in trying to get them prepared.”
A year older, wiser, and better Tommy Stevens is an asset that will bode well for Penn State in its pursuit of repeating as Big Ten Champions. While quarterback isn’t as much of an interchangeable or rotational position as running back or linebacker, the Nittany Lions will have two skilled, dynamic quarterbacks, which fits the next man up model of last year’s conference championship team.
“We always use the example of Jan Johnson last year with our team. He started out as the fifth team middle linebacker and against Michigan he was taking every snap of the game. In football you gotta be ready,” Franklin said. “Tommy’s approach has been awesome and he’s been attacking things the right way. He has the chance at having a really bright future here. You always have to be ready because you never know when your number is going to be called. But I’m really glad that we have two quarterbacks we can win with.”
And the Nittany Lions are confident about heading into the season with the Big Ten’s best depth chart of quarterbacks since Ohio State’s three-headed monster under center in 2015, when the Buckeyes won the national championship.
“Both of those guys are really competitive and they demand a lot from the guys around them,” wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins, who finished the game with five receptions for 84 yards. “It’s a plug in with them. They have the same mindset and count on you to do your job. There isn’t much of a difference with who we have leading us. They both get the job done.”