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Penn State Football Eyeing Newfound Leadership Presence Ahead Of Starting Quarterback Transition

Following Penn State football’s dominant two-touchdown Rose Bowl victory over Utah last month, expectations for the squad’s imminent future quickly began to pick up steam heading into the offseason’s depths.

With several returning underclassmen starters and other fresh pieces prepped to transition into first-team roles, the ceiling for next year’s group appears to be higher outside the Lasch Building’s realms than its recently set 11-2 benchmark.

While the program’s offseason hype is arguably at a six-year pinnacle since the Nittany Lions entered the 2017 slate ranked No. 6 in the AP preseason poll, head coach James Franklin is tasked with replacing a staunch leadership void that propelled his unit to a top-12 finish in the College Football Playoff rankings last fall. 

“I would say some of the focus of the offseason, probably the biggest one, is leadership,” Franklin said during his first media availability session since the Rose Bowl Tuesday afternoon. “I thought our leadership last year was as good as we’ve had in my 12 years as a head coach. I thought those guys just did a phenomenal job, and I think for [mostly] everybody in this room, you guys probably could have went into the season, and you guys probably could have picked out who the leaders were going to be.”

After a disappointing finish to the 2021 slate characterized by dropping six of its last eight matchups, Penn State regained its trend of recent consistency under Franklin’s regime by returning three of six captains heading into last fall. 

The trio, consisting of Sean Clifford, PJ Mustipher, and Jonathan Sutherland each held distinguishable leadership titles for at least two go-arounds, with Clifford and Sutherlund becoming the first four-time captains in program history. 

For the first time in Franklin’s decade-long tenure in Happy Valley, the head coach is primed to overhaul all of his captains from one cycle into the next — with his most vital void residing under center. 

Throughout his six-year run donning the blue and white, Clifford received his fair share of criticism as the offense’s steady maestro. While skeptics outside the program’s confines can debate the impact of his on-field contributions, his guiding hand in promoting long-term stability as the group’s signal caller proved invaluable in fostering a winning culture. 

“I think something that was really valuable that Sean [Clifford] did really well, and obviously as everybody knows, he was a great leader and one of the unquestioned leaders of our team last year,” sophomore quarterback Drew Allar said. “So, I think just having to fill that void is going to be a huge challenge for everybody on the team because there are multiple leaders that aren’t here anymore. We’re going to need people to step up and front those roles because to be a great team, we need to be a player-led team, and I think we’re all doing a really good job right now developing our leadership.”

According to Franklin, Allar is primed to enter winter workouts as the team’s first-team gunslinger after maintaining the backup role for the entirety of his initial year in Happy Valley. In mostly mop-up action, the former five-star recruit compiled 344 yards through the air for four touchdowns, while completing his passes at a 58.3% clip. Additionally, Allar has failed to toss an interception through 60 attempts in Mike Yurcich’s system. 

On March 4, Allar will turn 19 years old, marking a five-year age gap between the pair of projected starting quarterbacks from the Rose Bowl to the Nittany Lions’ week-one matchup with West Virginia at Beaver Stadium. 

While Allar’s youth could certainly hinder Franklin’s group’s offseason development from a leadership standpoint, the Nittany Lions’ head man refuses to let Allar’s age linger as an excuse for early incohesion. In Franklin’s mind, Allar, and presumed second-stringer, Beau Pribula, are both ready to leap into prominent vocal roles. 

“We’re going to need both of those guys specifically Pribula and Allar… not only competing but also taking on a significant leadership role,” Franklin said. “Again, no one cares that they’re young. They’re in that position, and a big part of that position is leadership.”

Last January, Allar was thrown into the fire during the grueling stretch of winter workouts and spring practice periods as the program’s potential answer to a long-term quarterback dilemma on the recruiting trail. Since 2004, the Nittany Lions have landed five top-six quarterback recruits: Anthony Morelli, Pat Devlin, Paul Jones, Rob Bolden, and Christian Hackenberg. 

Ultimately, Morelli finished his career with a 31-to-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Hackenberg faced coaching staff inconsistencies, and the other three high-profile prospects all transferred away from Penn State. For Allar, achieving success as a top-ranked quarterback prospect with the Nittany Lions would be unprecedented since Michael Robinson penned his signing with Joe Paterno’s crew in 2001. 

But, with over 12 months of experience under his powerful right wing, Allar believes he’s matured more from a personal standpoint than an on-field perspective, which should help him take on the highly-coveted position by the horns. 

“Coming in here [last] January, [I found] that high school is a lot different than college, as we all know, so I kind of learned on the fly with that,” Allar said. “But, I think the strength staff, coaching staff, and everybody in the program does a really good job of developing character. That was one of the reasons I came here just because of the people that come out of this place, both on the field and off the field. So, that’s just a testament to what Coach Franklin has done here.”

For now, all Allar can do is put his head down and use his well-documented work ethic as a ploy for increased respect from his surrounding teammates. With just under seven months to go before Allar likely resumes starting quarterbacking duties as Clifford’s heir apparent, the message remains simple — work in silence, and naturally, leadership will be earned as a result. 

“I think the biggest thing for being a leader is coming in every day and putting in the work,” Allar said. “Everybody else sees that. The players see it, the coaches see it, so just earning the respect of your teammates and the coaching staff I think is the biggest thing when trying to become a leader, just because you can’t talk the talk and not back it up, really. So, you have to be able to go back where you’re willing to do the extra work that nobody sees, but also just push your teammates.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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