Stevens makes an impression
By Cory Giger
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State has a potential Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, and yet he was not the most impressive quarterback during Saturday’s Blue-White Game.
Granted, it was just a scrimmage, and he played mostly against reserves, but backup Tommy Stevens looked every bit like a starting and potential star quarterback during the Blue’s 26-0 victory.
“Tommy Stevens, to me, 75 percent of the programs out there, he’s a starter,” PSU defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “He’s a starter on a winner. The kid can spin the ball, he can run it, he’s a take-charge guy, he’s a competitor. We’re very fortunate to have him.”
Penn State already has a proven standout quarterback in Trace McSorley, who led a potent offense during last year’s run to a Big Ten title. If the Nittany Lions live up to the lofty expectations this fall, McSorley, along with running back Saquon Barkley, could receive significant Heisman hype.
What the public learned for the first time Saturday is that if something happens to McSorley, there is indeed an impressive guy behind him. Coach James Franklin has been saying that all spring, and Stevens showed why as he was the star of the day, completing 17-of-24 passes for 216 yards and three scores.
“I just wanted to come out, execute the way I knew I could, play as hard as I could,” Stevens said.
He might not have had any other goal, but for onlookers, there was one question that needed to be answered: Can Stevens, who has great running instincts, throw the ball effectively?
The answer, on this day, was a resounding yes.
“Tommy Stevens continues to do some really goods things, and we’re excited about him and his development,” Franklin said before later adding, “His approach has been awesome. He’s really attacked things the right way. I’m really proud of him.”
Stevens showed good zip on his throws, firing lasers to receivers on short routes, such as a 15-yard TD strike to Juwan Johnson to end the day. He showed a big arm on a 50-yard pass that was on a line and on the money to DeAndre Thompkins. He showed an ability to throw over the middle on a 31-yard TD strike to Brandon Polk, who made a nice catch.
Stevens also showed he can take what the defense gives him, at one point looking off his read over the middle and going to checkdown man Andre Robinson in the left flat for what turned into a 9-yard touchdown.
If people didn’t know any better, they might have left the stadium thinking that Stevens, not McSorley, was PSU’s starter.
McSorley was a little shaky Saturday, completing 13-of-21 passes but missing on all of his deep throws, an area he excelled last season. He threw one interception and should have been picked off another time, but safety Ayron Monroe had a ball drop out of his hands.
It’s usually not a good idea to take too much out of the spring game, but stats aside, Stevens clearly passed the eye test and looked the part of a very capable quarterback.
“I’m a big Tommy Stevens fan,” Pry said. “Him and Trace both, those dual-threat guys, it’s one thing when they can run and spin the ball. But when they have that type of mentality that those two guys have … Tommy’s just so tough and aggressive, and he’s just a gamer. We love that about him. That’s part of what makes me so fond of him.”
Stevens didn’t win the quarterback battle last year, and the way things look, he will sit on the bench behind McSorley for two more seasons before getting his shot to start as a senior.
Franklin has made a point at every turn to praise Stevens, but there always could have been a feeling of, is the coach doing that on merit, or merely to keep the backup happy and engaged so he doesn’t transfer?
Saturday showed everyone that Franklin’s praise was on merit.
Asked how tough it can be to be a backup, Stevens said, “I’m sure you can probably imagine. It’s tough at times. At the same time, I try not to make this about me. I don’t want it to be about me. I want to just come in, do my job, help this team win and just do whatever I can.”
He added that he learned how to be disciplined last year, how to show up to work every day prepared to take over the job “because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Franklin has mentioned several times now that “we’ve got two quarterbacks we can win with,” and after Saturday’s scrimmage, that certainly looks to be the case.
Former PSU linebacker Tim Shaw, who’s battling ALS, spoke to the team Friday and had a wonderful message, according to Franklin.
“It may be one of the greatest, most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard,” the coach said.
Shaw spoke about how he’s been given the gift of perspective during his health battle.
As Franklin described it, Shaw told the team, “You live life the way you’re supposed to play the game of football, as if every play could be your last.”
That type of mentality is something Franklin wants the entire team to embrace — for the players to be the best they can be in everything they do.
Hollidaysburg product Zach Simpson started at right guard for the Blue team, which was down a few offensive linemen. Simpson, a redshirt sophomore, also has worked at center.
Altoona product Kevin Givens saw a lot of action on the defensive line, and Pry talked about how the redshirt sophomore has made big strides in his overall game.
A number of veteran starters and key reserves didn’t play Saturday, including Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki, linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen, receiver Saeed Blacknall and cornerback Grant Haley.
Backup running back Miles Sanders had his left arm in a sling and wasn’t available.
Kicker Joey Julius was not on the roster for either team. Special teams coach Charles Huff said Julius was injured before the Rose Bowl but is “getting better and will be back with us in the summer.”
More than a game
The game obviously gets most of the attention, but there’s a lot going on around Penn State on Blue-White weekend, such as former Lion safety Lee Rubin’s fundraising breakfast on behalf of the Community Refuge Education and Recreation Center.
Rubin and his wife, Carmen, have been bringing students from Pennsylvania and central New Jersey to the Blue-White Game for 15 years as part of an effort to increase their awareness in higher education and show them the opportunities available to them. Many of the students are from low-income or single-parent households.
On Saturday, the Rubins brought a number of those kids to Penn State for a scholarship breakfast, where they heard informative and inspirational speeches. Proceeds from the breakfast benefited students that wanted to further their education; money the Rubins raised also helped build a school in Haiti in concert with The Guiding Light Organization after a devastating earthquake in 2010.
Receiver Juwan Johnson was named winner of the Red Worrell Award, which goes to the most improved offensive player this spring. Linebacker Koa Farmer received the Jim O’Hora Award for defensive player, while Kyle Vasey received the coaches’ special teams award. Winners of the Frank Patrick Award for total commitment were quarterbacks McSorley and Stevens, and running back Josh McPhearson.
News and notes
Central’s Alex Hoenstine, a PSU commit as a preferred walk-on, was on hand for the Blue-White Game festivities. That meant he had to miss his team’s baseball game against Claysburg-Kimmel in the Curve Classic, which the Scarlet Dragons won, 10-0. … BG kicker Kolton McGhee, a top prospect for the class of 2019, also was on hand at Beaver Stadium. … The halftime media punt-catching contest was won by Thomas Frank Carr of Majic99 in State College.
Mirror Assistant Sports Editor Philip Cmor contributed to this story.