PSU’s future at quarterback up in air after McSorley

ORLANDO — I’m giving this away a day ahead of time, but we have a terrific cartoon from the uber-talented Bill Bettwy in our Penn State Gameday magazine tomorrow, featuring the Nittany Lion on the ground grabbing Trace McSorley’s leg trying to hold onto him as the senior quarterback waves goodbye.

Check out the cartoon (and all of the other great Citrus Bowl preview content) in Gameday.

Also, keep that image in mind going forward to next season, because there could be some very interesting times at quarterback for PSU.

There are always questions when transitioning from an established QB to a new starter. In the Lions’ case, the questions will be magnified even more after the brilliant, record-setting career by McSorley, the program’s winningest signal caller ever with 31 victories.

“I imagined having success, and that was a goal, but for it to have been planned out and played out like this, I probably wouldn’t say that,” McSorley said Saturday when asked if he could have envisioned everything he’s accomplished.

“It was always my goal to come in and be one of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history,” he added. “That’s something that I had set a goal personally when I got to school. … I’m just extremely thankful for the opportunity that I had here, and I’m looking forward to finishing out strong.”

If by some unfortunate circumstance something happens to McSorley in Tuesday’s contest against Kentucky — just as it did with Christian Hackenberg when McSorley took over in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl — it will not be next year’s projected starter, Tommy Stevens, coming into the game.

Stevens, it turns out, recently had surgery and isn’t in Florida for the bowl game. We can assume it was surgery on his foot, which he injured earlier in the year and cost him several games this season, but PSU doesn’t disclose injury information, so nothing can be said for certain.

We’re not certain, either, that Stevens will be ready to go for spring ball. James Franklin used the dreaded word “hopefully” when discussing that last week.

So, what we do know is that Sean Clifford will be McSorley’s backup in the Citrus Bowl. And we know that Clifford took a lot of second-team reps this season when Stevens was injured.

So, who will be the starting quarterback next season?

And maybe an even more interesting question: Who will be the starting quarterback at the end of next season?

Stevens has been praised at every step by Franklin as McSorley’s backup for three years. He’s been loyal. He stayed at PSU when he could have transferred. He’s kept his mouth shut and hasn’t complained.

Conventional wisdom says the senior gets the first crack at the job next year.

But if Stevens’ recovery prevents him from going through spring drills, there could be problems.

A baseball player — likable pitcher Jared Hughes, to be specific — once told me that the best ability is availability. If Stevens is out or limited and Clifford is taking all the first-team reps in the spring, you cannot help but wonder how much that alone would overtake all the loyalty components with Stevens.

Now, even if Stevens is fully healthy in the spring, the thought here is that there still should be a clear and open competition between he and Clifford. We haven’t seen enough of Stevens as a true quarterback — not the lion, which was basically a made-up, wasted position this year — to just hand him the job no questions asked.

If Stevens beats out Clifford in the spring, summer and fall, then so be it. You have your answer.

But if Clifford, who will be a redshirt sophomore, looks like the better quarterback, I’m no believer that coaches owe a job to a kid just because he’s been around longer.

And one thing has to be clear: Penn State needs to find the best quarterback. Not the best running back who also can play quarterback.

Stevens has been primarily a runner when he’s been in games the past few years, and maybe it’s unfair to judge him on all of that. But my issue with him is that his tendency has always — and that’s 100 percent of the time — been to take off and run as soon as the pocket has collapsed.

That is not the kind of quarterback Penn State needs in this RPO offense. Yes, it needs a guy who can run when necessary. But if you go back and look at many of the biggest plays of McSorley’s career, they came when he was flushed out of the pocket and could have run, but instead he kept his head up looking downfield and turned it into a big pass play.

The second question I asked earlier about who will be PSU’s starting quarterback at the end of next season will be intriguing to watch.

Let’s say Stevens does indeed get the job to open the season. He’s been so injury prone throughout his career, and you couple that with the fact that his first instinct seems to be to run the ball when in trouble, that it makes you wonder if he can survive a full season health-wise.

Clifford is more of a prototypical pocket passer, and while he can scramble, he doesn’t exactly fit the ideal mold of what PSU’s RPO offense is looking for at quarterback. So if a knock on Stevens is that he might run too much and get hurt, the question with Clifford is whether his relative lack of mobility will either put him in danger of big hits or be a hindrance to the offense.

Here’s what offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne had to say Saturday about Clifford’s development:

“He’s been getting a lot of reps throughout the year, and it hasn’t been hard to see the progression he’s made, really, every week. … If you look at end of spring to now, he’s grown probably tenfold, so it’s been great to watch what he’s done.”

I will admit that I have major concerns about Stevens as the starter in this offense.

I will admit that I have major concerns about any running quarterback at any high level of football these days, because the odds of him getting injured are too great. And when he inevitably does get injured or beaten down by all of those hits — as McSorley did this season — it can take a massive toll on your entire offense and team.

We’ve seen McSorley do some amazing things in his stellar career. But when he had his knee injured this season, he was, frankly, a below-average quarterback for a few weeks.

McSorley believes that all of the adversity Stevens has gone through and the patience he’s shown will make him a good quarterback.

“He’s had to grow as a player (while) not having actually been on the field as much as he would have liked,” McSorley said. “And I think it only benefited him and his future and the team and the future. So I’m really excited about just how he’s going to come out of this and what he’s going to become after. “

That’s the question, really: What can Stevens become as a starting quarterback after all he’s been through?

And will it be good enough for him to win the job next season, keep it all year and lead the Lions to the same kind of success as McSorley?

It’s going to be fascinating to find out next year.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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