EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of our annual position preview series. Be sure to check back over the next couple of weeks as we preview the rest of the positions in the lead-up to the 2020 season.
Heading into the 2019 season, quarterback was arguably one of, if not the biggest question marks for the team. After all, the legendary Trace McSorley had just moved on after three years as the team’s starting QB and the departure of Tommy Stevens via the transfer portal had Nittany Nation turning their collective eyes towards Sean Clifford, especially once he quickly won over the locker room by declaring that there would be no drop-off at the position.
Clifford’s first year running the show at QB was a mixed bag of results. On the one hand, his overall results were fine, as he threw for 23 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions, threw for over 2,600 yards, and picked up an additional 400 yards and five TD’s on the ground. On the other hand, you see a 59 percent completion rate, which while not terrible by any means, is definitely a number that needs to go up.
Delve even further into that other hand, and you’ll see some rough results against some of the better teams on the schedule: 117 yards and a TD on 12-for-24 passing at Iowa, 10-for-17 passing for 71 yards at Ohio State (before leaving the game in the second half with an injury), three picks to only one TD against Minnesota (even though Cliff threw for 340 yards and two of those picks you could argue, should’ve been defensive pass interference penalties).
Furthermore, Cliff’s numbers really began to dwindle after the Minnesota game, as he showed signs of being banged up in November, due to running the ball no less than seven times in all but one game which was against Ohio State and only because he left that game early. In fact, Cliff ran the ball ten-plus times in seven of the 12 games he played in last season. With Kirk Ciarrocca now calling the shots as offensive coordinator in Happy Valley, priority number one will be to reduce the amount of running Cliff does in order to keep him intact going into the final stretch of the season.
In addition to having a rather proven QB coach now working with him, Cliff has also been using more unconventional means to improve his on-field performance such as learning chess moves with the help of an “elite mind trainer.” Cliff himself is quoted in the linked article as saying that chess can help him with going through his reads, which is a very important trait in a QB looking to take that step from good to elite.
Let’s Talk About Backups
Will Levis is the clear-cut No. 2 guy on the QB roster at this point, having proven himself as an effective runner who is unafraid to line up and run right at you (as Ohio State learned the hard way). While Will possess a strong arm, as evidenced from this TD pass he threw to effectively ice Rutgers’ upset hopes, passing isn’t known to be his forte. That is something which will hopefully be remedied this year, as Levis, who already has one career start under his belt, needs to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
With Michael Johnson Jr. in the transfer portal and incoming freshman Micah Bowens being the only other scholarship QB on the roster, the third string spot is Taquan Roberson’s to lose. Roberson saw limited action last year, mostly in the final few minutes in the season finale against Rutgers. While it’s unlikely anyone besides Cliff or Levis sees action at the QB spot in non-garbage time, it’s important that Taquan makes strides in improving, in the off chance he is relied upon with the game’s outcome still in doubt. Expect Bowens to redshirt, as his passing game needs polishing (though he certainly possess the ability to run).