When Mike Gesicki first spotted do-everything quarterback Tommy Stevens on campus, his first impression wasn’t exactly punctuated with thoughts of the backup’s unparalleled athleticism.
Stevens walked in with long blonde hair and a rail-thin physique. “And I was looking at him and I was like, ‘We gave this kid a scholarship?’” Gesicki recalled with a laugh.
Stevens has done his share of surprising since then.
Teammates didn’t know what to expect when the Indiana native enrolled in Happy Valley. They assumed he could pass — he was a scholarship quarterback, after all — and they saw how he could move while competing against Trace McSorley in camp. But the catches? The on-the-spot improvisations? The overall versatility?
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“He’s kind of surprised me,” Gesicki said earlier this month. “He’s a weapon for us — whatever he’s doing.”
Said wideout Juwan Johnson: “He brings everything to the table. He can catch the ball; he can throw the ball. He can pretty much do whatever.”
Stevens has been the offense’s biggest surprise this season. While McSorley has solidified himself as one of the Big Ten’s best, Stevens has fast become a household name in Happy Valley. So far this year, he boasts 190 rushing yards, 158 passing yards and 61 receiving yards — in addition to four rushing TDs, three passing TDs and two receiving TDs.
Unlike last season, Stevens didn’t just pick up those numbers while guiding the team in the fourth quarter of blowouts. He’s been a crucial part of the offense’s success.
“He’s one of my favorite guys on the team,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “He’s tremendous on the field, and he’s one of those guys who’s such a great athlete, you just need to get him on the field somewhere.”
Against Northwestern, Stevens adjusted to a pass thrown a little behind him and came away with the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown. Against Maryland, he faked an end-around and sprinted in 21 yards for the first score of the game. Against Georgia State, he again caught the game’s first score — and later lobbed a 35-yard touchdown moments before getting hit.
It’s no wonder the coaching staff felt compelled to create a new starting position, called “Lion,” to better reflect Stevens’ slash-type abilities.
“Everything’s very natural to him,” offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said. “He’s probably one of those guys that I bet he’s really good at pool. I bet he’s good at darts. I’m sure if I put him on the golf course, he’s probably going to drive the ball 315 yards right down the center with a baseball grip. He’s one of those guys.”
But Stevens’ spot in this offense didn’t just come about because his athleticism was impossible to ignore. He received the opportunity, in part, because he and McSorley kept needling then-coordinator Joe Moorhead in quarterback rooms that were designed to be open to feedback.
A jet-sweep against Iowa worked to perfection last season. So, the two quarterbacks would ask, why not try something more with Stevens? Once a few extra runs worked, then the topic of catches came up. Each time Moorhead decided to implement a new play, Stevens rose to the occassion.
“We just kind of kept saying, ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that’ that we continued to expand and he kept being able to do it,” McSorley said. “So we just kept building.”
McSorley remembered Stevens often telling the staff, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” And he was confident enough that he never backed down when a new challenge came up. “He’s the type of player if you told him to play defense, he would,” McSorley added.
Saquon Barkley has been the constant for Penn State, McSorley has been the leader, and Stevens has been the wild card. He’s welcomed it so far this season.
And, in spite of his teammates’ initial thoughts, they’re all equally impressed at this point.
“Whatever it is, he can do it for us,” Gesicki said. “He’s done an unbelievable job.”