A Look At Penn State’s ‘Open Competition’ At Quarterback For The 2019 Season
James Franklin has never shied away from encouraging competition at each and every position on his team, and so far this offseason, the starting quarterback job has been treated no differently.
He made it clear at a press conference Wednesday that the position is up for grabs and that no starter has been named. With Trace McSorley in the NFL and his once-heir Tommy Stevens now transferred to Mississippi State this past May, it’s time for a new signal caller to take the reins.
With all of this in mind, we broke down each quarterback on Penn State’s roster and evaluated his chances at taking the reins of the Nittany Lion offense as QB1.
Sean Clifford is the odds-on favorite to win the position battle this summer. The redshirt sophomore has the most experience out of anyone on the quarterback depth chart, however, his experience has been limited to a few garbage time opportunities in place of McSorley, thanks to Stevens’ injury last season.
The Cincinnati native completed five of seven attempts in 2018 along with two touchdowns, one of which was a record-breaking 95-yard bomb to Daniel George for a score against Kent State.
Considering his experience compared to the rest of the room, Clifford has emerged as a leader this offseason, but offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has no doubt in his ability to carry that responsibility.
“I think he’s seen it before. I also think being able to watch [Trace McSorley] was extremely beneficial for him. [Sean’s] certainly going to take some things he learned from him and apply them,” Rahne said.
Leadership abilities aside, Clifford had a strong performance at the 2019 Blue-White game, completing 11 of his 18 pass attempts for 118 yards and a touchdown. He even led his squad with 31 yards of rushing, an aspect of his game he’s said he’s developed while in college.
Even coming off a redshirt year, Will Levis brings a lot of promise and could challenge Clifford for the starting job. The 6’3″, 234-pound Connecticut native was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and has plenty of arm strength. Rahne is well aware of the redshirt freshman’s ability to move the ball down the field.
“He’s an extremely positive kid. He’s got a great build and his arm strength is nearly unmatched,” Rahne said. “I’m excited about what he brings to the table, he’s a better athlete than people give him credit for.”
While the young quarterback clearly has the talent, experience is where Clifford has an edge over Levis. The redshirt freshman had a strong performance in the 2019 Blue-White game, completing four of seven passes for 86 yards and a touchdown, but other than that he doesn’t have any in-game experience at the collegiate level.
Despite his lack of experience, Levis will now be thrown into the mix much earlier than fans had ever expected as a result of Stevens’ transfer. Even if Levis doesn’t earn the starting job over Clifford, Franklin stated that he’ll be “thrust into a more significant situation” this season.
Michael Johnson Jr.
Michael Johnson Jr. garnered plenty of excitement with his arrival to State College this past spring. The freshman was ranked as the 15th-best dual-threat quarterback in the nation coming out of high school and posted impressive numbers as a senior, throwing for 1821 passing yards along with running for 1,290 yards in just 12 games.
Johnson wasn’t too impressive in his Nittany Lion debut at the 2019 Blue-White game. He threw for 36 yards on four completions but failed to get anything going on the ground.
Despite not having much of a chance to start at quarterback this season behind Levis and Clifford, Johnson will be an exciting player to have on the roster for years to come.
Franklin noted Johnson and his fellow freshman quarterback, Taquan Roberson specifically when explaining how Stevens’ transfer has opened up the depth chart for players who may have previously been buried on it.
“Instead of it being a three-way quarterback battle with Levis, Sean, and Tommy, now it’s a three-way battle with one of the two freshmen [Johnson. and Roberson],” Franklin said.
Assuming Clifford wins the job, how the competition for the back-up job shakes out and how it affects Johnson’s and Roberson’s redshirts will be interesting.
Taquan Roberson was also listed as a dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school in New Jersey, but his game definitely leaned more on passing than Johnson’s ever did. In his senior year, Roberson threw for 2,432 yards and 29 touchdowns in just ten games played.
Like Johnson, fans likely won’t see much of any of Roberson on the field this season, but they clearly have reason to be excited for two young, talented quarterbacks climbing up in the ranks.
Despite an underwhelming Blue-White game stat line, completing three of his nine pass attempts for 19 yards, the talent is clearly there for the New Jersey native.
A coach’s hope is always for a position battle to improve each player involved, and that is what Ricky Rahne has been seeing for both Roberson and Johnson this offseason.
When discussing the two young quarterbacks, the offensive coordinator said that they were both “definitely going in the right direction” in terms of learning the playbook and becoming more confident in running the offense. The battle that takes place for an important backup role between Roberson and Johnson will be an entertaining storyline for fans to keep an eye on.
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The terms of the contract have not been released.