Tommy Stevens finds out every Monday or Tuesday if his “Lion” package will be a part of Penn State’s gameplan. This time last week, as the Nittany Lions prepared for Michigan State, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and head coach James Franklin gave him the thumbs down. Three weeks ago, they gave him the green light.
So at this point, Stevens already knows if he will be utilized as Penn State’s Swiss Army Knife against Indiana on Saturday. And if he is, he desperately wants to make a positive impact after an ineffective cameo in the Nittany Lions’ 27-26 loss to the Buckeyes.
“I need to play better, and I want to play better,” Stevens said on a conference call Tuesday. “I promise you that there’s nobody that wants me to play better than myself. But it’s just a part of the process. I have to continue to prepare. I have to continue to be ready to play. And I just have to execute.”
Stevens spoke with the tone of a guy who threw three interceptions on Saturday. He didn’t even see the field against the Spartans. But questions surrounding Rahne’s early, fruitless usage of the “Lion” package against Ohio State clearly stuck with Stevens.
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The 6-foot-5 fan favorite had three rushes for negative-12 yards and a fumble in Penn State’s one-point loss a few weeks ago. Stevens rushed for a loss of one and gain of two yards on the Nittany Lions’ first drive, which ended in a punt. On its second series, Penn State rolled to Ohio State’s 17-yard line — before a swing pass to Stevens was fumbled. He recovered, but the loss of 13 yards took the Nittany Lions out of their rhythm and forced them to settle for a field goal.
That’s it. That’s the extent to which we’ve seen Stevens this year, who was an active member of Penn State’s attack the past two seasons and accounted for nine touchdowns in 2017. He has otherwise stood on the sideline, biding his time.
The redshirt junior suffered a lower body injury in preseason training camp after already missing spring camp. He was seen with a walking boot on his right foot at the team’s photo day in August and did not fully go through pregame warmups before the season opener against Appalachian State.
However, Franklin said Stevens could have played in Week 3 against Kent State if he was needed — essentially, if Trace McSorley went down. Instead, with the Nittany Lions leading big in the fourth quarter, third-stringer Sean Clifford spelled McSorley while Stevens watched. A week later, the same happened at Illinois.
Stevens said Tuesday that he was ready to go — both as Penn State’s “Lion” and backup quarterback — for the Nittany Lions’ game in Champaign. A few hours later, though, Franklin said they wanted to play it safe.
“We talked about him earlier being available, but then we felt like it was probably still in our best interest to hold him,” the coach said. “We fully cleared him to go for Ohio State. That’s the coaches, trainers, everybody being comfortable, Tommy being comfortable.”
Franklin also said Stevens’ “Lion” package didn’t appear against Michigan State because “of a scheme thing.” Everything is formation-driven, the coach added.
So, will Stevens — an Indiana native — see the field in his homecoming this weekend? The “Lion” package might work against Tom Allen’s 4-2-5 defense with Stevens and his size advantage hitting the outside, likely matching up with a fifth defensive back. And if Penn State rebounds from back-to-back losses and dominates the Hoosiers, expect to see him spell McSorley. Stevens — the Nittany Lions’ projected 2019 starter — has thrown just 30 career passing attempts and could use the reps.
But regardless of if he finds the field Saturday, Stevens trusts the coaching staff. He doesn’t regret his decision not to transfer back in March and just wants to do what he can to help the Nittany Lions win.
“I’ve been trying to maximize opportunities,” Stevens said. “And I need to do a better job of that moving forward.”