PSU’s Ricky Rahne on 2019 QB competition
The last time James Franklin met with reporters publicly was after April 13’s Blue-White Game — when Penn State was due for, as he put it, a “true competition” at quarterback come fall camp. Sixty days later, that statement is still accurate. Just with different signal-callers.
Speaking for the first time since Tommy Stevens’ transfer to Mississippi State, Franklin wished the former Nittany Lion well and looked to the future, one that’s likely tied to Sean Clifford.
“I want what’s best for Tommy, I want what’s best for Penn State football, and I want what’s best for college football,” Franklin said on Wednesday afternoon at the Lasch Football Building. “It seems that every day you go on social media or the internet and there’s some story that’s going on with transferring. But at the end of the day, I care about Tommy. He did wonderful things for us in our program. I wish him nothing but success. And I want to make sure that Penn State’s going to be successful.”
The Nittany Lions’ success, of course, now hinges on Clifford or Will Levis. The former — Trace McSorley’s backup last year when Stevens was hampered by injury — is expected to start in 2019, with the latter serving as the Nittany Lions’ No. 2.
Franklin maintained that quarterback, like every position on the depth chart, is subject to an “open competition.” Without Stevens — McSorley’s longtime backup — in the picture, the coach said he expects one of two true freshmen, either Ta’Quan Roberson or Michael Johnson Jr., to step up and challenge Clifford and Levis for the gig.
As for Levis, he said in late May that he believes fall camp to be an actual competition. Rahne praised his arm strength, and Franklin noted that Levis is now “thrust into a more-significant situation.”
But, barring injury, all signs point to Clifford starting on Aug. 31 against Idaho.
Clifford handled mop-up duty in 2018 and got into the Citrus Bowl when McSorley briefly went down. And Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne had no hesitation letting him rip it. On Clifford’s first play against Kentucky, he aired out a 50-yard heave that arguably should have been caught by DeAndre Thompkins. It would have been No. 14’s fourth completion of 30 yards or more — on just seven attempts.
“When he gets in there, he has confidence. He plays up to the moment,” Rahne said Wednesday. “It gives him more confidence going into this year, and it gives our team more confidence going into this year. In the Kentucky game, I had confidence he could throw the ball down the field when he was in there. I’m excited for what he can do.”
Perhaps more important than Clifford’s arm strength has been his leadership skills this offseason. Often described as a “fiery competitor” by Franklin, the quarterback became someone the Nittany Lions rallied behind after Stevens departed.
Shortly after the longtime Nittany Lions left for Joe Moorhead and the SEC, Clifford stood up and addressed the Nittany Lions in a team meeting, one with all the coaches and players gathered around in the Lasch Building. There will be no drop-off in the quarterback position, Clifford said, according to Penn State’s Micah Parsons. The linebacker said it was something out of a movie.
“He promised the team in front of everybody,” Parsons added. “Everybody just rallied to him.”
Rahne remembers Clifford’s message vividly.
“It was unscripted, unplanned and it worked out well,” the coordinator and quarterbacks coach said. “It showed not only confidence in himself, but also confidence in his teammates. That was something that the guys needed. That moment resonated with them.”
It’s something the Nittany Lions will hold onto as they inch toward fall camp. And it’s something the players will remember come Week 1.