Tommy Stevens

Backup QB Tommy Stevens a do-it-all option for No. 4 Penn State

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Backup QB Tommy Stevens a do-it-all option for No. 4 Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Tommy Stevens will take over as Penn State's starting quarterback eventually. Now, he's helping starter Trace McSorley any way he can. 

No. 4 Penn State's do-it-all backup has emerged as another option in a loaded offense. Stevens has run for, caught and thrown for touchdowns already and could see more opportunities as Penn State looks for more ways to incorporate its big, athletic backup heading into the Big Ten opener at Iowa on Saturday.

"It puts another weapon on the field," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's a big, strong, fast guy, and then obviously they have to be concerned about him throwing the ball as well. I think this package will just continue to evolve."

Stevens, who pushed McSorley for the starting job late into training camp last season, offers an intriguing option for an offense already with stars in Mike Gesicki and Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley. 

He can line up like either one or even split out like a traditional wide receiver. Stevens' knowledge of the offense gives him useful intelligence when it comes time to attack a defense from one of a handful of alignments.

Take his first career touchdown catch - which sparked Penn State's 52-0 rout of Georgia State on Saturday - as an example.

Stevens lined up as a tight end would, off the line of scrimmage and to McSorley's left. He slid right at the snap, hauled in a swing pass from McSorley and burst through Georgia State's secondary for an opening 10-yard score. 

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead dialed up the play early in the week and surprised Stevens with it in practice.

"There weren't a whole lot of times we did it in practice where I actually caught the ball," Stevens said. "So I saw the (strong side linebacker) come off the edge and I was like, `Oh man, I'm actually going to catch the ball here.' So Trace did a good job of evading, giving me a great ball, I caught it and did my best to score."

His best is better than most backups who are usually relegated to holding clipboards and wearing headsets. 

The former Indiana high school standout entered Penn State with sub-4.7 40-yard-dash speed and his long strides coupled with his cutting ability made him a good dual-threat candidate to lead Moorhead's offense. But Stevens, a year behind the junior McSorley, was edged by McSorley's experience. So he immediately tried to find other ways to contribute.

It hasn't taken Moorhead long to work Stevens in. It began last year against the Iowa Hawkeyes, who now have to worry about Stevens even more when they meet on Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.

Then, Stevens ran five times for 70 yards and added his first career touchdown in the 41-14 win.

Stevens enjoys the possibility that the Hawkeyes are likely preparing to see him on the field in one of many potential formations.

"Coach Moorhead has endless amounts of ideas about getting guys in space," Stevens said. "They've got to spend more time to put this kind of stuff in in practice for us." 

Moorhead doesn't have to change anything for Stevens if Penn State needs its backup to play his natural position. Franklin believes his No. 2 quarterback has a mastery of the offense on par with McSorley's.

Stevens got a chance to show off his quarterbacking skills - and a glimpse of what could be in store after McSorley exhausts his eligibility - on Saturday, too. 

After taking a hard hit on his first snap in relief of McSorley, Stevens threw a dart over the middle for a 35-yard touchdown to Saeed Blacknall. He took another big hit and watched Blacknall's catch from his backside.

Afterward, he sounded like a starting quarterback, making a point to refute the criticism he's heard of Blacknall's slow start. Instead, Stevens credited his big receiver for making the play, even though it was a perfectly thrown ball.

"Tommy shows that ability all the time," safety Marcus Allen said. "He has a second gear he can kick into. It's another dynamic and electrifying player like that on the field. We can put a lot of stress on a D because you don't know what we're going to hit you with."

Tommy Stevens shines at QB during Penn State's Blue-White Game

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Tommy Stevens shines at QB during Penn State's Blue-White Game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State's Blue-White Game seldom surprises. OK, just about never.

It is a nice little exercise to cap spring practice. The stars mostly sit. The subs mostly shine. The plays are vanilla, the final score forgettable. As long as the lads avoid serious injury, the coaches are happy.

Saturday's game didn’t offer any revelations, either.

It did offer this reminder, however: Tommy Stevens can play. 

He is the backup quarterback to Trace McSorley, who excelled last season and is on the early Heisman watchlists this year. Yet Stevens, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall, continues to offer evidence that the Lions would scarcely skip a beat if he had to play (always a possibility, given the punishment McSorley tends to take).

On Saturday Stevens elevated a drab affair to palatability by going 17-for-24 for 216 yards and three touchdowns while playing a half in relief of McSorley, as the Blue beat the White, 26-0.

The asterisks, of course, are many. Stevens was facing overmatched backups, and the quarterbacks were not allowed to be touched (though Philadelphia native Shareef Miller, amid a two-sack day, accidentally leveled reserve QB Billy Fessler with a blindside rush in the first half, on a play where he appeared to be pushed from behind).

All that taken into account, Stevens looked confident and sure of himself, checking down to running back Andre Robinson for a nine-yard touchdown in the third quarter and firing darts to Brandon Polk and Juwan Johnson for respective TDs covering 31 and 15 yards in the fourth.

"What you (media) guys are starting to see more of, we've been seeing in practice," coach James Franklin said. "I think we've got two quarterbacks that we can win with, and you have to have that."

The Langhorne native has been saying that for a while now. He said it heading into last year – that there was a true competition between Stevens and McSorley for the No. 1 job, even though McSorley had seen game action in 2015 and Stevens had not.

Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead met individually with the two quarterbacks shortly before last season and informed them of their decision. Then McSorley led the Lions to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth.

The 6-4, 224-pound Stevens appeared in seven games and actually finished as the team's third-leading rusher, with 198 yards on 21 attempts (9.4 a pop). He also scored twice but tried just three passes, completing two.

Franklin nonetheless maintained this was a plug-and-play situation, that he would have been comfortable putting Stevens out there at any moment. And Stevens, to his credit, never sulked.

"I just try to come to work, prepare myself and just be ready for an opportunity when it shows up," he said.

That's not an easy role to accept. Stevens, an Indianapolis native, had been a finalist for the Gatorade Player of the Year in his home state his final high school season (2014). Nobody goes anywhere expecting to sit.

"As you might imagine, it's tough at times," he said, "but at the same time, I try not to make this about me. I don't want it to be about me. It's just coming in to do my job, help this team win – just do whatever I can."

Anything and everything.

"Obviously you didn't see a whole lot of me (last) season," he said, "but some of the guys that were running with the (second string) at the beginning of the season then moved up and took starting roles, so I took pride in trying to get those guys prepared because it's not just me that’s got to be prepared to step in."

His spring has been such that he shared the Frank Patrick Total Commitment Award with McSorley and backup running back Josh McPhearson. Everybody realizes what Stevens has been asked to do, and what he might yet be asked to do.

The examples of backups coming to the fore at other schools are many. Just three years ago, Ohio State won a national championship with its third-stringer, Cardale Jones.

Franklin, for his part, fretted about who might fill the No. 3 role for the Lions this season, as Fessler is locked in a battle with Jake Zembiec and walk-on Michael Shuster.

"I think you really need three," the coach said. "I think we're short."

Not for long. One highly regarded recruit, Sean Clifford, will arrive this summer. An even more highly regarded prospect, Justin Fields, is committed for 2018.

But for now, there is McSorley, and there is Stevens. 

The latter committed to Indiana in January 2014, then flipped to PSU 10 months later when the Lions lost another QB recruit, Brandon Wimbush, to Notre Dame.

Stevens enrolled early, redshirted, then got a taste of things in ‘16. And now he and McSorley appear virtually interchangeable.

"I had to be disciplined (last year)," Stevens said. "I had to go to work every day, be prepared because you never know. You never know what's going to happen."

That still holds true.

Trace McSorley named Penn State's starting quarterback

Trace McSorley named Penn State's starting quarterback

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Trace McSorley will start at quarterback for Penn State when the Nittany Lions open against Kent State on Sept 3.

Coach James Franklin settled on the sophomore after McSorley battled redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens for the job through the spring and summer.

"We're excited what he brings to our offense," Franklin said Wednesday. "I think the biggest thing is he's been the backup quarterback for two years. He has game experience and there's value in that. You've been able to see it already, you're not projecting as much."

McSorley will make his first career start at home against Kent State.

"It's a lot of weight off my shoulders," McSorley said. "Over the whole offseason, Tommy and I were pushing each other. This team will be better because of how this competition went with us pushing each other."

Both quarterbacks are strong runners, but McSorley's experience gave him the edge.

His shiftiness was utilized in practice throughout his tenure as Christian Hackenberg's backup. He usually led the scout team against the top defense, offering a similar look to the opposing running quarterbacks Penn State would play.

Although he's played sparingly on Saturdays in that time, McSorley saw meaningful snaps in Penn State's bowl game in relief of an injured Hackenberg. Then, McSorley completed 14 of 17 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns, ran seven times for 31 yards and nearly led a comeback against Georgia.

Now, McSorley will try and turn around a unit that's ranked 105th and 114th in total offense the last two seasons. He'll do so in a spread-based offense designed for a mobile quarterback and led by new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

"I think the best thing about the way he runs the ball is he's savvy," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "He sets up his cuts. You play a guy who's a statue in the pocket and you cover well, he gets sacked. Now we have another element. Not only do you have to worry about covering guys, but when that four or five seconds is up there's that option of scrambling, another aspect of the play you have to worry about."