Coming into this past season, there were plenty of thoughts on how the quarterback position would shake out. A portion of the population thought that replacing talent like Christian Hackenberg would be hard for any team to do, even if his production was far lesser than we all expected from him. Others viewed that, by virtue of having a more mobile presence in the backfield, the offense would be more capable of executing.
The first faction was right in the first four games, but from game five onwards, it was the second faction’s frame of thought that proved just how deep the position really is right now. In the span of four recruiting cycles, Penn State went from redshirting the backup quarterback to potentially having a logjam at the position.
The Starter: Trace McSorley
Speaking of redshirting backups, Trace McSorley had a rocky start to his college football career. Most of his turnovers came in the first three games, with a number of fumbles coming at inopportune times.
By the time the Minnesota game rolled around, McSorley looked like a different quarterback altogether. His ability to escape pressure opened up a different facet of the game that was previously unavailable to him, which set up the success the team was then able to obtain. Without being able to focus solely on Saquon Barkley, defenses routinely allowed wide receivers to slip by, oftentimes being wide open for McSorley to go to work. He, however, also showed the ability to put the ball on tight windows when it was necessary.
McSorley’s challenge now is to prove that last year wasn’t just the byproduct of a new offense. Now that teams are aware of what the Nittany Lion offense is going to do, how will he adjust his game to still bring that element of surprise? Is the fumble problem a thing of the past or will we see it rear its ugly head again early in the season? Will the deep passing game that was so effective last season keep working again this year, even though Chris Godwin is no longer with the team?
Eight interceptions on 29 touchdowns is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but can McSorley work to cut that to five or less this season? He did, after all, have five going into the Rose Bowl, where he threw three in one game. Along with the Indiana game, McSorley had five of his total eight interceptions in two games. If he’s able to cut down on his multiple turnovers per game issue, he could be the hands-down best quarterback in the Big Ten in the 2017 season.
McSorley proved he has the tools to perform in the Big Ten. If he’s able to make the refinements necessary in the offseason, the sky is the limit for what this quarterback can accomplish. We’ll get our first glimpse when we watch the Blue and White game.
The Backup: Tommy Stevens
Unlike years past, it’s refreshing to see that if the unthinkable happened, we’d have capable people waiting in the wings. Tommy Stevens showed that he wasn’t too far behind McSorley when it came to quarterbacking. In the limited time he saw on the field, he proved to be an even more capable runner than McSorley, and with enough work could be as good a passer as well.
His weakness comes from opposing defenses knowing what he’ll do when he’s on the field. In his defense, most of the playing time he got was in garbage time, when you’re not supposed to pass that much. And even then, many teams couldn’t stop him anyway.
It’s unlikely that Stevens usurps McSorley’s spot this season, but if he stick around, he may have a senior season to remember.
The Reserves: Jake Zembiec, Sean Clifford
It’s very likely that Penn State’s most talented quarterbacks will be a redshirt freshman and a true freshman that is likely to redshirt himself. Both are pro-style quarterbacks, but both have the ability to move in the pocket and make plays happen when necessary. With Clifford most likely redshirting this year, we could see a competition brew between Zembiec and Stevens for the backup spot. However, if Penn State’s offense improves at the rate we expect it to, the third-stringer could see plenty of action in games.