As March comes to a close and the annual Blue-White game knocks on the door, a little more than two weeks away, one quarterback is ahead of another in the competition to lead the Nittany Lions’ offense.
But at this point in the year, how much stock does head coach James Franklin put in that?
Franklin, as he said last week, reaffirmed after Wednesday’s practice that redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley is “a little bit ahead” of redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens.
However, the coach dismissed that McSorley’s current edge is a 100-percent indicator for who’ll ultimately lead the Nittany Lions against Kent State on Sept. 3.
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“It doesn’t really matter who’s ahead right now in practice number seven of spring ball,” Franklin said. “It really matters where they are maybe halfway through (fall) camp, if it takes that long to decide.”
Franklin said both quarterbacks have done well acclimating themselves to the offense of new coordinator Joe Moorhead. Numbers-wise, Franklin has McSorley and Stevens pegged as “competitive” when it comes to completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Where McSorley has the advantage, in Franklin’s eyes, is his experience. As Christian Hackenberg’s backup last season, McSorley saw time in mop-up duty in the regular season, and filled in for the injured then-starter with two touchdown passes against Georgia in January’s TaxSlayer Bowl.
“The experience, reps, the fact that he’s been the No. 2 for a full year,” the coach said of McSorley. “You tell guys all the time, you’ve got to prepare like you’re the starter. But when you’re redshirting and you’re the No. 2 quarterback and could go in at any point, you prepare differently.”
How the quarterbacks have ran the offense has also made matters easier on them.
Franklin noted that after each play, McSorley and Stevens look at the sideline and gather the next play from Moorhead and the staff.
Expect that to be the case in the future. Franklin said the plan is for Moorhead to call plays from the field this year, not the coaches’ box.
“It puts a little bit more on the coach,” Franklin said. “It takes a little pressure off the offense, and they’re handling it really well ... It’s been really beneficial so far.”
Franklin and redshirt junior tackle Andrew Nelson agreed: Moorhead’s scheme is offensive-line friendly.
“Up front, we run a lot of inside zone. A bunch of inside zone. So there’s less scheme the offensive line is responsible for,” Franklin said.
“I think this offense is really good for the offensive line,” Nelson added. “This offense fits us better.”
That being said, how has the line looked halfway through spring ball?
After going through growing pains last year (i.e. allowing three sacks per game), the two have seen progress. Franklin said Nelson is “playing at a different level” while Nelson made sure to note that redshirt freshman tackle Sterling Jenkins has seen a “day and night difference” from 2015 fall camp to now.
Another part of that progression along the line has been Brian Gaia’s transition to center. Gaia, a redshirt senior who started at guard for the Nittany Lions the past two seasons, made the switch to fill the gap Angelo Mangiro left after graduation.
Franklin said the qualities Gaia possesses — an intellectual leader capable of issuing calls and communicating — makes him a seamless fit at center.
“It just makes sense based on his body type and experience,” the coach said. “He’s done a great job so far.”
In all, Franklin is pleased with where his offensive line is, saying he, Moorhead and new offensive line coach Matt Limegrover have been on the same page with the unit’s development.
“We’ve got progress,” Franklin said. “But we’ve still got a ways to go.”
Split out wide
The Nittany Lions return 2015’s two leading wide receivers in Chris Godwin (69 receptions, 1,101 yards, five touchdowns) and DaeSean Hamilton (45 receptions, 580 yards, six touchdowns), but it’s the unit’s depth that has Franklin and Penn State excited.
Franklin said DeAndre Thompkins, who had three catches for 33 yards as a redshirt freshman last season, looks “completely different right now,” as he and true sophomore Brandon Polk are much stronger than they were in 2015.
Franklin also said he’s getting more consistency from Saeed Blacknall. Now a junior, Blacknall was a big-play threat in 2015 with eight catches for 248 yards and a touchdown, but he had only one multi-catch game.
“Saeed’s a guy who’s always tested really well. Up until this point, it hadn’t translated on the field the way you’d think. Don’t get me wrong, he’s played really well for two years, but based on his numbers, you’d expect even more,” Franklin said of the speedy wideout who can bench press nearly 400 pounds. “This spring, I’m starting to see it really translate for him.”
On the other side of the ball, sophomore cornerback John Reid had high praise for redshirt freshmen Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson. The pair of New Jersey natives combined for 23 total touchdowns as high school seniors, and even though they didn’t see the field in 2015, Reid was always impressed with the duo in practice
That bodes well for an already-dynamic group of pass-catchers.
“They’re big guys. They can catch the deep ball, they can catch the short ball. They can do a lot,” Reid said of Charles and Johnson. “Even when they were redshirts last year, they were still very much on par with everyone.
“Our receiving position is deep.”