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Onward Debates: Who Should Start At Quarterback For Penn State?

With spring practices underway in Happy Valley, position battles will begin to heat up within James Franklin’s team. Perhaps no battle is more anticipated — or will have a bigger impact — than the one at quarterback between Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford.

It’s been three years since the last quarterback battle dominated preseason conversation. At the time, we knew almost nothing about Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens save for McSorley’s brief appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl. This time around, we’ve seen enough of both Stevens and Clifford to understand what, exactly, each quarterback brings to the table.

Stevens would appear to have the upper hand heading into the spring, and Franklin recently hinted that it’s Stevens’ job to lose.

Still, injuries sidelined Stevens for most of the 2018 season. In his absence, Clifford stepped in as Trace McSorley’s backup and went 5-for-7 for 195 yards and two touchdowns through the air, and he did so in style.

Stevens has obviously shown his explosiveness at the quarterback position, but the starting job is not so clearly his after Clifford’s display last season.

Two of our staffers took to their respective keyboards to debate who deserves the starting job in 2019.

Andy Mollenauer: Tommy Stevens

While Sean Clifford put up sensational raw numbers last season, he lacks the experience Tommy Stevens has under center with just four appearances compared to Stevens’ 23.

With Trace McSorley off to shoot his shot in the NFL, Stevens’ three seasons of experience should be comforting to head coach James Franklin, who would be wise to opt for familiarity and talent rather than talent alone. Stevens has proven himself worthy by displaying exceptional arm strength and tremendous physicality, which is evident when he runs the ball.

Stevens essentially offers the perfect successor to McSorley. We’ve seen him thrive in the run-pass option offense, and a quarterback who can rush has been crucial under Franklin.

Stevens doesn’t shy away from the dirty work of getting yards on the ground with his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame. He’s plowed his way through defenses for a total of eight rushing touchdowns and 506 yards throughout his career in Happy Valley.

As far as passing is concerned, Stevens has only thrown four touchdowns, but his ability to slot right into Franklin’s system without the offense skipping a beat makes him the best choice for the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback spot next season.

Derek Bannister: Sean Clifford

Tommy Stevens obviously has the advantage over Sean Clifford in terms of experience and snaps. With Stevens out for most of last season, however, Clifford stepped in as Trace McSorley’s backup and showed exactly what he can do, albeit in a limited role.

His first career pass attempt was a 34-yard touchdown.

Clifford’s deep ball could be the difference. Last season, Penn State lacked the ability to beat defenses over the top. At times, McSorley struggled with his accuracy (think overthrowing an open DeAndre Thompkins against Michigan) and the receiving corps dropped passes left and right. In fact, the lack of a consistent deep threat forced the offense to run vanilla passing plays that would pick up a few yards here or there. The offense lacked the X-factor that made it so electric in 2016 and 2017.

KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson, a healthy Justin Shorter, and Pat Freiermuth will be nearly impossible to contain, especially with a quarterback that can find this talented group over the top. Clifford’s arm strength and accuracy means he’s just the man to do that.

Clifford may not represent the same threat on the ground as Stevens, but that doesn’t really matter. We’ve seen offenses thrive under pocket passers recently, like Ohio State’s high-powered unit with Dwayne Haskins taking snaps.

For Penn State to take that step from good to great, they’ll need Sean Clifford running the offense.

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