On Tuesday morning, James Franklin and running backs coach Charles Huff found themselves discussing a Players’ Tribune video feature on Mark Ingram — the New Orleans Saints star, 2009 Heisman Trophy winner and former seventh-stringer at Alabama. It reminded Franklin of a lesson he preaches to his young, waiting players on a daily basis.
“There’s so much football in front of them,” Franklin said at his weekly press conference. “If they just keep a really good attitude, keep working hard, keep trying to improve, then their time is going to come at some point. When it does, they’ll be ready.”
Franklin’s Ingram anecdote was part of a 501-word answer to a question about backup quarterback Tommy Stevens: How does he show the patience necessary each and every day?
Well, according to Franklin and teammates, No. 2 has handled the less-than-ideal situation as well as one can.
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“Tommy has been great. He really has,” Franklin said. “He’s been great for our team, for our locker room. I know there’s a tremendous amount of confidence in him and excitement about his and our future.”
The case of Stevens is an intriguing one.
A former three-star prospect, Stevens flipped his commitment from Indiana to Penn State after Brandon Wimbush — now starting at Notre Dame — did the same to the Nittany Lions. He lost the 2016 spring quarterback battle to Trace McSorley, who, of course, set single-season records and was named Big Ten Championship MVP last season.
No one could’ve blamed Stevens if he bailed on the Nittany Lions this offseason. McSorley was entrenched as the long-term starter, at least for 2017.
Instead of transferring, though, Stevens stuck around in Happy Valley, and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead found a niche for him. In two-quarterback sub-packages, Stevens — a lanky 6-foot-5 QB who runs with a swift, reckless abandon — has eight catches and two receiving touchdowns this season. He also has a passing and rushing score.
On 67 career touches — passing attempts, rushes and receptions — he’s averaging 7.69 yards per involvement.
But for a player who “wants to be the guy,” biding his time has still been a tough ask. Stevens — who’s endeared himself with fans and has drawn thunderous applause when he steps out on the Beaver Stadium grass — isn’t “happy being the backup.” Understandably so.
“Is he satisfied? No,” Franklin added. “But he’s handled it really well.”
Stevens’ teammates have noticed, too.
“Just to see Tommy be patient, always interacting with the guys, trying to help the team in any way possible, I commend him for that,” senior safety Marcus Allen said. “It just makes me really look up to him in that light.”
Added McSorley: “He’s not going to let circumstances dictate his attitude or how hard he works.”
McSorley — who’s responsible for a program-record 68 touchdowns (51 passing, 17 rushing) over 26 games played — is impressed with not only Stevens’ attitude, but also his skill. He’s sold on the fact that Stevens has what it takes to succeed.
“We’ll be doing bucket throws,” McSorley said, still somewhat baffled, “and he’ll launch it 50, 60 yards just because he feels like it. He wants to see how far he can throw it.”
That’ll help when Stevens is starting one day. When that day comes — and where — is a different story.
It’s easy to speculate that Stevens could transfer. With McSorley expected to stay for his final year of eligibility, some would think it’s common sense for him to leave — that is, if the redshirt sophomore completes his degree and becomes a graduate transfer.
But as Franklin explained, Penn State is still in a “little bit of a transitional stage” in that some players — like Allen or Jason Cabinda or Connor McGovern — started as freshmen or sophomores. That’s not always the case at places like Penn State. But because of the depleted scholarships in recent years due to NCAA sanctions, that’s how it was.
With the program coming out of that, it’s on Franklin and the staff to explain to younger guys that more often than not, playing time comes with time.
That’s what the head coach is doing with Stevens. He recently showed the backup examples of college players who “waited their turn, then took advantage of when the time came.”
And by all accounts, that’s registered with Stevens.
“I remember a couple years ago talking about a guy, Trace McSorley, like this,” Franklin said. “I see that with Tommy. ... I think he’s got a bright future.”