Franklin wishes Stevens well, sees battle looming at QB for Nittany Lions
Friday afternoon, the saga of Tommy Stevens completed at least one chapter when the quarterback announced his decision to transfer to Mississippi State for his final season of NCAA eligibility.
Coming off a roller coaster four-year career at Penn State, one that included three seasons as a backup to Trace McSorley as well as injuries limiting his participation for two spring practice periods and the 2018 season, the decision marked the beginning of Stevens’ next career step.
The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, are taking steps forward themselves.
Sitting down with Blue White Illustrated for a wide-ranging interview this week, Penn State head coach James Franklin recounted the events that led to this point and, maybe more important, detailed how the program is moving on in Stevens’ absence.
“Obviously, a little unexpected,” said Franklin of Stevens' decision. “We had a lot of conversations with Tommy and his dad. And I don't feel like either side got exactly what they wanted out of those conversations, but I felt like we had kind of got to a compromise and then moved forward. But at the end of the day, I wish Tommy nothing but success. I would have loved for it to be here, but I wish him nothing but success.”
In three seasons of action with the Nittany Lions, Stevens participated in 23 games, lining up as a quarterback, running back and receiver. In the process, he completed 24 of 41 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, adding 506 rushing yards and 62 yards receiving to his tally.
Hampered by injury during the 2018 season, however, Stevens was sidelined for Penn State’s first four games and played sparingly in his return, completing only 8 of 11 pass attempts for 110 yards and a touchdown, with one interception.
In Stevens’ absences, Franklin noted, redshirt freshman third-stringer Sean Clifford earned valuable experience, both on the practice field as well as in game action.
“I do think in a lot of ways, obviously, the Lord works in mysterious ways,” Franklin said. “Sean was able to get a lot of those reps this year for some circumstances that were outside of Tommy's control, but it allowed Sean to gain some experience. Now it has thrust (redshirt freshman Will) Levis into a more prominent role, and then those two freshman quarterbacks (Ta’Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr.). Good thing we signed two.”
In an offseason that has at times seemed defined by the NCAA Transfer Portal, Stevens becoming the 12th former Nittany Lion to seek out and find a new program to play for next year, Franklin said Penn State is not alone.
Rather, expanding his perspective to take in the obstacles of other programs in the Big Ten and elsewhere, Franklin indicated that he’s found solace in the larger reality of college football’s transfer challenges and issues.
“The thing that I think is probably helpful for me is, I just got back from Big Ten head coach and AD meetings, and I think a lot of times one of the challenges for us, as well as the fans as well as the media sometimes, we're kind of in our own bubble and things are magnified in that bubble because we only focus on us,” said Franklin. “But when I talk to other coaches and ADs, everybody is struggling with this. If you're on social media, every day it seems like there's another one.
“So it's a challenge and it's an issue. But for us, I think we had a really good room that was competitive and as healthy as those rooms normally are. So we gotta press forward and move forward.”
Asked whether Stevens’ departure makes Clifford the presumptive starter for Penn State’s preseason camp, Franklin offered his perspective that the very notion is problematic.
Instead noting his long-held belief of considering every single position an open competition, every single year, Franklin said he understood the tendency of fans, media, and the public-at-large of making presumptions. But, he added, within his own program, that tendency has and will continue to be avoided.
“What I don't want to do is, I don't want to ever make promises or make statements and then don't live up to them,” said Franklin. “We don't do that in recruiting. A lot of schools do that in recruiting. They promise a guy a number, they promise playing time. We just don't do that.
“To me, we're supposed to be using the game of football to teach kids life, and you earn things in life and you earn things in college football.”
Describing Penn State’s quarterback position as an open competition heading into preseason camp, then, Franklin said he remains optimistic and hopeful moving forward for both the Nittany Lions as well as Stevens.
“Ultimately, in a perfect world, this works out great for Penn State and this works out great for Tommy, which is truly what I want,” said Franklin. “I would have loved for it to be here, but I also know that people ultimately have to do what they think is in their best interest.”