Previewing Penn State’s 2022 Quarterback Room
Penn State’s 2021 football season came to a close with a discouraging 24-10 loss to Arkansas in December’s Outback Bowl, but the work for the 2022 season has already begun.
With nine players declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft and more graduating from the program, the depth chart is in a state of natural flux. Unsurprisingly, the Nittany Lions’ upcoming starting quarterback decision is the subject of deep public scrutiny following a disappointing season.
In December, three-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford announced he would flex his extra (and final) year of eligibility to return next season. That news was not met with any comment from the team about his future as the starter, though, so 2022’s starting quarterback seems up in the air.
The Nittany Lions’ quarterback room is full of talent, especially with a pair of highly-touted recruits on the way. Here is a look at the pros and cons for Penn State’s five potential starting quarterbacks.
Editor’s note: Each player is marked with their current eligibility and standing on the 2021 roster.
Sean Clifford, Fifth-Year Senior
The Case For
As previously mentioned, Clifford has been Penn State’s starting quarterback for the last three seasons. A quarterback returning with years of starting experience is often better positioned to elevate a team. Take a look at Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, who took the step from average to record-breaking Heisman finalist in his fourth season with the Panthers.
That experience involves preexisting chemistry with receivers Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith. Rather than rebuilding a feel for timing and mutual trust, Clifford can slot right in with the team’s top playmakers. Clifford’s veteran status will likely also make him valuable in the development of the younger quarterbacks around him. The inclusion of another qualified voice is never a bad thing.
Additionally, with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich set to return, Clifford will enter the 2022 season within the same offensive system as the previous year — something that has never happened in his career as a starter. There is a strong argument that Clifford’s failure to reach elite status is, in part, due to the inconsistent coaching staff behind him.
In the 2021 season, Sean Clifford initially appeared to have taken a step forward. Leading the Nittany Lions to a 5-0 record and a top-five ranking, the super-senior quarterback was playing arguably the best football of his career. Over that time frame, Clifford was responsible for 1,336 passing yards, 11 passing touchdowns, and three interceptions. His momentum (and, subsequently, the team’s) was derailed following an injury against Iowa that he never seemed to fully recover from. Full health and solid protection could be enough to prolong a period of steady play from Clifford.
The Case Against
Though Clifford’s sixth season will bring five seasons of previous experience, it also brings five years of potential evidence against him. In 2019, Penn State finished the year inside the top ten and with only two losses, but one of those defeats came after a bad interception by Clifford against inferiorly ranked Minnesota.
Clifford’s decision-making is typically positive, but his execution fluctuates between games. For every five-game hot streak, Clifford seems to have a disappointing spell to counter. In the 2021 season, Clifford’s 61% competition percentage ranked 70th in the country. For context, there are 65 teams across the Power Five conferences.
Win, lose, or nine-overtime loss, this will be Sean Clifford’s final season. With that in mind, the ceiling needs to be taken into account. Surely, no one would be upset if Clifford retained the starting job and won a national championship. However, if that were not to be the case, what would Penn State be foregoing?
This season could be an important and useful year in the development of a younger quarterback. Clifford influencing the future of the program and keeping the starting job are not mutually exclusive. If he were to play and underwhelm again, the consequence would be losing a year of experience for someone else, who will still be around in 2023.
Christian Veilleux, True Freshman
The Case For
In 2021, Christian Veilleux’s name was called under short notice, as he was unceremoniously thrust into the starting job against Rutgers when sickness ran through Penn State’s locker room. Veilleux showed promise in his lone start. He threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns in the Nittany Lions’ 28-0 shutout victory.
Veilleux also looked more comfortable on the ground than Clifford. While Clifford excels in his improvisational scrambles, the designed runs and read-options from No. 14 leave something to be desired. Veilleux, on the other hand, looked more akin to former Nittany Lion Will Levis when asked to run the ball.
As 2022 would serve as just his second year at University Park, more development is at Veilleux’s disposal. Giving a young quarterback the opportunity to grow inside the program may allow James Franklin to more accurately assess what his quarterback room looks like.
Like anyone else, high school recruits Drew Allar and Beau Pribula will only receive up to one year under redshirt. If Veilleux is not given the opportunity to prove himself in game situations, Franklin and his staff will be forced to make the 2023 judgment call with incomplete context. If Penn State is not destined to win a national championship this year anyway, it may be good to look to the future.
The Case Against
Yes, Christian Veilleux did not disappoint in his first with the Nittany Lions. He did play against Rutgers, though.
While it is important to give Veilleux credit for a productive first game under center, it is similarly important not to overreact to a singular game against an inferior opponent. If Veilleux could not compete against Rutgers, he would likely not even be in the conversation. Beating Rutgers is the baseline expectation for Penn State’s starting quarterback.
Veilleux certainly has potential, and as a young quarterback, however, there are other young quarterbacks in the program as well. If developing a future player is the goal for the 2022 season, Veilleux may not be the correct option. Just because he was one of the few healthy players available against Rutgers may not mean much outside of that vacuum.
Finally, even if Penn State is unlikely to win a national championship in the upcoming year, it is even more unlikely that the team will resign to that fate. Development is key in college football, but winning in the short term is not negligible. Unless Veilleux offers the same or better odds of bringing a national championship to State College, Penn State would be punting on a whole year of football.
Mason Stahl, Redshirt Freshman
The Case For
Fans may not have seen much from Mason Stahl on the field, but the coaching staff has. Stahl has shown enough promise to earn the team’s Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year award.
The versatile athlete got a little bit of game time against Rutgers in 2021. He did not attempt any passes, but he showed flashes of speed on his three carries of the game, which is maybe unsurprising considering he led the team’s quarterbacks in every major athletic drill during their 2021 winter workouts.
Although his arm was not on display, multiple years in the system and the coaches’ support could offer him a developmental advantage against Veilleux. Plus against Rutgers he wore the No. 20 jersey and, as a quarterback, that’s badass.
The Case Against:
The dual-threat quarterback is vastly unproven. Even Veilleux is unproven, and Stahl has played even less, not even having attempted a pass in his Penn State career. The same experiential concerns that apply to Veilleux apply to Stahl in a more drastic fashion.
Standing at only six feet tall, Stahl’s size may prove to be an issue both in durability and physical ceiling. His quickness is certainly impressive, but an overreliance on a running quarterback often creates problems for teams, as defensive strategy can get away with some level of one-dimensionality.
Drew Allar, High School Recruit
The Case For
Five-star recruit Drew Allar is the highest-rated quarterback prospect that James Franklin has ever signed. In fact, Allar is the highest-ranked high school quarterback in the Class of 2022. His ceiling is undefined at this stage. With consistency being a question with every quarterback on the depth chart, seeing what Allar can do right away may not cause such a drastic drop-off.
In the 2022 high school All-American Bowl, Allar made a positive impression. He threw a long touchdown, had a second touchdown dropped, and even earned a comparison to Patrick Mahomes from one of the commentators. Even when scrambling, Allar showed off huge arm strength. Of course, he needs development, but having a year of game experience under his belt as a true freshman would offer inimitable learning experiences.
The Case Against
Allar is raw. While he boasts impressive confidence and strength, there were times where his accuracy was not fully present. As a high school recruit, it was nothing to be wildly concerned about. However, as a starting quarterback in the Big Ten, that cushion may not be the same.
Though he has high potential, a year of learning from a college coaching staff would likely benefit him just like it benefits all college quarterbacks. He can still get game experience without burning a redshirt. It may end up being more detrimental to burn a year of eligibility before he’s fully ready.
Beau Pribula, High School Recruit
The Case For
ESPN lists Pribula as a dual-threat quarterback in contrast to Allar’s status as a pocket passer. His athletic diversity lends itself well to Yurcich’s propensity for rushes from the quarterback. In his final high school season, Pribula completed 72% of his passes, which would be a welcome addition to the Nittany Lions after the offense struggled in 2021.
Pribula is already a Penn Stater through and through after committing way back in August 2020. Perhaps that is an early indication of the intangible leadership qualities required of a big program quarterback.
The Case Against
The critiques levied against Allar similarly stand in the case of Pribula. Rushing a true freshman into a starting job is very rarely the correct option for coaches. It would likely benefit Pribula to spend a year getting acclimated to the competition difference before being thrust into it.
Although star ratings rarely matter once the games begin, when there is little concrete information available on incoming recruits, the ratings likely indicate some degree of expectation. If a true freshman were to earn the starting job, it would likely be Allar. It may not be long before Pribula lands above Allar on the depth chart, but until that competition even begins, Allar has the comparative benefit of the doubt.
Who will be your pick to start at quarterback next season? Let us know in the comments!
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