Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Stevens knew he would be tested by Penn State’s defense this spring.
On Wednesday, during the media’s 10-minute practice allotment, the unit did just that.
Fresh off an interception of apparently first-team quarterback and redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley (John Reid snagged the pick and took it to the house amid hoots from his teammates on the sideline), Stevens took over and checked the play with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead on the sideline.
“The quarterback is scaaared,” safety Marcus Allen yelled from the sideline. “Don’t throw it, Tommy! Don’t do it!”
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Stevens threw, a quick seam route that was pulled in by tight end Tom Pancoast, and the chirping stopped.
Though he has been here a year, Stevens has no on-field experience in live action. This spring, he’s been tested by a defensive unit brimming with confidence — and they have no trouble expressing it.
“As far as on the field, I think I was tested the most,” he said after practice. “Just from the mental aspect, knowing blitzes, coverages, just defense in general. I didn’t know much about defenses schematically in high school, I just kind of went out and played. But I think I’ve been tested mostly there. After a couple of weeks, months working out with the team, guys respected me and we went from there.
“I think the biggest thing, last thing was the mental capacity in terms of the offense. In high school I didn’t do too much as far as, you know, sending protection and knowing coverages. Usually what I’ve seen was cover two, three and sometimes four. I didn’t know too much about coverages. But getting in and learning from Christian (Hackenberg) and from Trace just has really helped me in the mental aspect.”
Stevens is, according to head coach James Franklin, behind McSorley in the spring’s quarterback competition. However, the team isn’t making an official decision until fall camp and so it’s the older signal-caller’s job to lose.
Me and Trace have always gotten along since day one. He’s been really great about helping me out, like with coverages, and I’ve tried to help him where I could, which obviously he has the advantage because of his experience. As far as off the field, I feel like we’re pretty similar as well.
Tommy Stevens, on Trace McSorley
“I doubt we’ll name (a quarterback),” said Franklin. “We want to give Tommy every opportunity for the job. Trace being the backup quarterback for a full year is different, and Tommy’s done some really good things this spring. We’ll go back and watch the film but we’ll most likely take that competition into the summer as well as a number of positions.
“You’d prefer to be in a position where you got a returning starter, where it’s clean-cut,” he added, grinning.
The head coach also said that both Stevens and McSorley have remained quite amiable throughout the competition.
“They’re good friends, we got really good chemistry in the quarterback room,” he said.
The two are lifting partners in the weight room and buddies off the field, too.
“Both of us, we love competition,” said McSorley. “I mean, we’re together all the time…We have a lot of fun with it and it’s been great.”
Added Stevens, “Me and Trace have always gotten along since day one. He’s been really great about helping me out, like with coverages, and I’ve tried to help him where I could, which obviously he has the advantage because of his experience. As far as off the field, I feel like we’re pretty similar as well.”
Franklin added that Stevens has a great feel for finding open receivers and throwing for a high percentage, but isn’t always technically sound, while McSorley is a playmaker first and foremost and responsible in his reads and progressions.
“He’s a winner,” said Franklin of McSorley. “He’s a playmaker in terms of being able to make plays with his feet and with his mind. And the other thing is, you don’t go to four state championships, I don’t care what state it is and I don’t care what level it is, you don’t go to four championship games without having some other things about you; some moxie, some leadership. We have noticed, since he arrived, that players gravitate to him. So he’s got all of those other intangibles that you want at the quarterback position.”
Franklin also addressed some of the public criticism McSorley, who is physically opposite of Hackenberg in almost every way, from his height to his fit in a spread and his speed, to the tattoos on his left arm. Many question McSorley’s ability to see over a line at 6 feet even, and his arm strength (though Moorhead’s spread and zone read concepts will obviously reduce the need for chunk plays via deep ball).
“To be honest, I think (McSorley) throws the ball a lot better than people give him credit for,” said Franklin. “He’s got a very, very strong arm, he’s got a quick release, he can throw for velocity and he can throw for accuracy. The area that I thought he had to come in into spring ball and work on was his deep ball, and he’s worked on that. So, you know, I think he’s got a lot of the intangibles and a lot of the traits that you’re looking for. The thing that he doesn’t have is he’s not 6-foot-3. That’s the one thing I would say he’s lacking, obviously.”
Notables: Kicker Joey Julius was not practicing with the team, though he was spotted leaving the parking lot at Lasch…Nick Scott saw reps at second-team safety and also on the punt return team alongside Mark Allen and Koa Farmer…Quarterback Billy Fessler held placekicks for Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello…On the offensive line, former left tackle Paris Palmer is still getting reps on the right while Andrew Nelson has stayed in his place. Sterling Jenkins was at left guard and Chance Sorrell saw time on the left as well, while Derek Dowrey got some time at right guard…Franklin said that redshirt senior guard Brendan Mahon is out with an injury and has missed some practices…Gregg Garrity Jr. was lined up as a sole kickoff returner…Franklin and Pasquariello, who hails from Australia, hosted a contingent of international Penn State students after practice…Penn State’s annual Blue-White game kicks off at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Quotable: “Well I’m no Christian Hackenberg,” said Trace McSorley, wryly, when asked how far he can throw a football (he thinks about 50 yards).