Penn State Football

‘I’m proud of who I am’: Penn State’s Tommy Stevens on Heisman hopes, what the future holds

Tommy Stevens on opportunity to start at Penn State

Tommy Stevens waited his turn behind Trace McSorley. Now he’s ready for what lies ahead.
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Tommy Stevens waited his turn behind Trace McSorley. Now he’s ready for what lies ahead.

Tommy Stevens shrugged and laughed as he looked down at his right foot. Tap, tap, tap, tap. The quarterback’s shoe wouldn’t stop bouncing off the Lasch Building carpet. It was an eager tick, one that persisted as the Nittany Lion looked through his Twitter feed.

One of Stevens’ recent retweets was an article by The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel, laying out his way-too-early favorites to win the 2019 Heisman Trophy. All six were quarterbacks: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Washington’s Jacob Eason. Scrolling farther down Stevens’ profile, a post from Stadium Network reporter Brett McMurphy outlined the 25 players with the best odds to win the Heisman Trophy. That included all six of the aforementioned passers and half a dozen more, including Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders — a redshirt freshman at 80/1 odds.

Stevens looked away from the feed and smiled. He wasn’t included on those tweets from February and March, and his name still hasn’t shown up in recent odds, either. Which is understandable. Trace McSorley’s longtime backup still has to secure the starting job next fall, after all. But Stevens believes in himself and the dream he set as a 4-year-old: Hoist the Heisman, win a national championship and get to the NFL.

“Thinking about it, it makes me — uneasy isn’t the word for it. Maybe ‘fired up’ is a good way to put it. It gets me going, thinking that other people don’t necessarily believe,” Stevens told the CDT. “I don’t ever remember seeing Trace doing anything like that (retweeting bulletin board material). But I remember talking to somebody back home, and they were like, ‘How do you expect to replace Trace?’ I was thinking. I could sit here and try to be the best Trace McSorley I can be, but I’m not gonna be any good at it. I’ll be a damn good Tommy Stevens, though. ... This is me. I’m proud of who I am and what I stand for.”

Come Aug. 31, Stevens hopes he’s standing in Penn State’s backfield — alongside Ricky Slade or Journey Brown — and leading Ricky Rahne’s offense like he’s prepared to do for years.

Stevens, who narrowly lost Penn State’s quarterback competition to McSorley in 2016, has notably waited his turn. Instead of starting, he not only accepted the role of backup but also contributed as Penn State’s “Lion” — scoring nine touchdowns the last two seasons mostly as a do-it-all subpackage weapon. From James Franklin on down the line, No. 2 has been labeled a model teammate and, now this offseason, a leader. With McSorley gone, Stevens has assumed the mantle as mentor in the quarterback room and ought to be considered the heavy favorite to land the starting gig.

But if he doesn’t — if Franklin and his staff go with up-and-comer Sean Clifford — Stevens’ dreams won’t die. They just won’t come true at Penn State.

“Tommy has so much invested in this year, and we know that this is his last shot. If he’s not Penn State’s quarterback, he’s going to be somebody’s quarterback,” Stevens’ father, Tom, told the CDT. “Everyone already knows, if he’s not playing at Penn State this year, he’s probably going to leave. I don’t think that’s much news to anybody. He wants to be a starter. ... If it’s not Tommy, then I think Sean would do a great job, and we would wish Penn State the best of luck.”

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Penn State quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens walk off the field together celebrating the win over Iowa on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Some may view those words as inflammatory. But Stevens’ dad didn’t offer that in a threatening tone. Rather, it was coming from a father who watched his son endure hardship after hardship in Happy Valley — a father who simply wants his boy to achieve his goals.

It really shouldn’t come to that, anyway. Stevens was listed by Franklin as the Nittany Lions’ starter entering spring ball and not much should change that between now and fall camp. But the moments and mishaps of the last 12 months stick with Stevens.

A serious foot injury kept him out of 2018 spring ball, forcing him to watch practice from a motorized scooter. The ongoing issue hampered Stevens throughout the season, one in which his production and presence waned. Blunders — from his “Lion” package fumble against Ohio State to an ugly interception at Michigan — stick out in Stevens’ redshirt junior campaign.

His season ended on his couch in Indiana, as foot surgery kept him sidelined from the Citrus Bowl. Stevens called watching that game “difficult.” It didn’t help that McSorley went down, and it was Clifford, not him, who stepped in against Kentucky.

Stevens — bobbing his head back and forth in a Lasch Building chair, considering his decisions even to this day — said he tries not to live in regret. He could have had surgery last fall, around camp when the foot injury reared its ugly head again, as opposed to waiting until the winter. That might have shut him down for most of the 2018 campaign, though, something he couldn’t put himself through.

Instead, No. 2 decided to play through the pain. Stevens — a former three-star Indiana commit who became a favorite of both the fans and coaching staff — wasn’t going to sit out and let people forget he existed.

“I wanted to at least give myself a chance to be successful. And I wasn’t,” Stevens said. “It’s hard to grow in the season, harder to gain confidence, when you’re failing. It’s human nature. There are highs. There are lows. But you have to learn from everything. ... That’s life. Nobody’s going to be there to feel bad for you. And no one’s going to be there to hold your hand. You have to invest, invest, invest and be ready to take your opportunity.”

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Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens waits for the snap as he warms up for the first spring football practice on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Stevens’ time is now or never. And that makes those closest to him a bit on edge.

The quarterback’s father admitted that he’d like to see Franklin and the staff make their starter decision before August hits. From their perspective, the waiting game is “nerve-wracking.” Meanwhile, Stevens’ high school head coach, Justin Dixson from Decatur Central, said the idea of No. 2 having only one year to prove himself is “a little gut-wrenching.” “How quick is the trigger going to be on him if he maybe has a turnover here or a turnover there or doesn’t play well or doesn’t make the right read?” Dixson added. “How much of a grace period is he going to have as a starter?”

But those hypotheticals haven’t gotten to Stevens. He knew what he signed up for when he stayed at Penn State and turned down interest from other schools. “He knew he could have gone to a lot of different places last year,” Stevens’ dad said. And he understood that last season was McSorley’s victory lap, and his Penn State career would be defined in 2019.

Will next season end with Stevens lifting the Heisman Trophy? Despite the odds, the quarterback is confident. Always has been. Back in T-ball, Stevens celebrated inside-the-park home runs while still rounding third. In kindergarten flag football, his first-ever touch was a near-touchdown reverse down the sidelines. It would have ended in six points, too, had Stevens not looked back at those chasing after him.

That’s when Tom Stevens knew he had something special in his son. And that’s when Tommy made it clear his intent to play in the NFL, capture a national title and, yes, win the Heisman.

“A lot of parents tell their kids, no, you can’t do that. I told him, let’s take it in stages. You want to win a national championship and win a Heisman, let’s play high school football first. Let’s get a scholarship offer first. Let’s take it in stages. And he has,” Tom said. “He feels like this is his step. Whether he wins it or not, just to be out there and be able to compete for something he’s wanted his whole life is a pretty awesome thing. ... He knows a lot is riding on this year.”

And that’s fine with Stevens.

“I’m really confident with where I’m at right now,” the quarterback said, foot still tapping, smiling. “My career here, my career before getting to this point, all these different things have led me to this moment. ... And here we are.”

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