When a limited Trace McSorley re-entered last weekend’s wipeout, down 35-0 to Michigan with nine minutes remaining, Penn State fans and media members alike were surprised. So was Tommy Stevens.
Stevens — McSorley’s patient backup and Penn State’s starting “Lion” — expected to be in the game. Heck, he didn’t think he’d be yanked after tossing a pick-six late in the third quarter, after coming in for a brace-stricken McSorley to provide a spark. But he was pulled then and pulled later in the game, too, forced into an awkward situation on the sideline.
“In my mind, when Coach Franklin came up to me and told me that I was going to get a series (with Penn State trailing 21-0), I was kind of assuming that I was going to play the rest of the game,” Stevens said on a Wednesday conference call. “And when I went back in the game (down 28-0 in the fourth), I didn’t think I was going to come back out again like I did. ... It was a waiting game.”
Much like Stevens’ career to this point.
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For more than 800 days — from the time Franklin named McSorley his starting quarterback on Aug. 24, 2016 — Stevens has bided his time. While No. 9 became the No. 1 quarterback on Penn State’s all-time charts, Stevens has been limited to subpackage work and mop up duty against the likes of Georgia State, Rutgers and Maryland. But with McSorley suffering an apparent right knee injury, Stevens finally saw meaningful time.
Against Iowa, when the fifth-year senior went down, Stevens stepped in, scored on a 3-yard run and led Penn State on a field-goal drive before halftime. At Michigan last weekend, Stevens and McSorley were caught in a carousel before the game got out-of-hand. The backup closed things out with a short score, avoiding Penn State’s first shutout since 2001.
Stevens said those precious reps helped in his development as a signal-caller, and he craves more cracks at it, too. “I want to continue to get game reps at quarterback,” the backup said.
But that doesn’t seem likely. When asked if Stevens — McSorley’s 2019 successor — would get any more run at quarterback over Penn State’s final three regular-season games, Franklin essentially said no. “We’ll probably continue approaching it the way we have with being able to mix him in in some of the packages we’ve used him,” the coach said.
Stevens, to his credit, hasn’t complained. He understands that with McSorley good to go, opportunities at quarterback are slim. But he’s said it before, and he said it again Wednesday: He doesn’t want to be known as the Nittany Lions’ jack of all trades.
“I’m obviously willing to do what’s best for the team,” Stevens said. “But I don’t want that to be mistaken. I want to play quarterback. I didn’t come to Penn State to be the ‘Lion,’ if that makes sense.
“I’m not trying to sound arrogant by any stretch of the imagination. But I have a lot of confidence in myself to play the position, and I know my teammates feel the same way.”
They do. Penn State safety Garrett Taylor — who shared a recruiting class with Stevens — commended the Indiana native’s hard work and patience on Tuesday. Running back Miles Sanders, meanwhile, is confident with either quarterback by his side, saying “he (Stevens) throws the ball as well as Trace.”
It doesn’t seem like we’ll see Stevens’ arm really tested until he’s likely starting in 2019 — which, by the way, the quarterback said is “exciting to think about.” But Stevens, when asked about the future, quickly brought it back to Wisconsin and the Nittany Lions’ game this weekend. He’s focused on the present. Like he did before Michigan, Stevens is preparing, just in case his moment comes.
For the time being, Stevens is firmly Penn State’s backup. Unless, of course, McSorley further injures his leg or doesn’t have the mobility necessary to operate Penn State’s offense effectively. In either case, Stevens would be ready.
“Getting into games and playing, part of me has always had a chip on my shoulder,” Stevens said. “I want to prove that I belong, prove to people that I’m supposed to be here.”