Penn State backup quarterback Tommy Stevens, who once battled Trace McSorley to be starter, mulls his future

Penn State Northwestern Football
Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens runs as he looks to pass against Northwestern during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

When Penn State’s season ends, quarterback Tommy Stevens will have a decision to make.

Having backed up Trace McSorley the past two seasons after losing a starting-job competition to McSorley in 2016, the redshirt sophomore can stay at Penn State — where, with McSorley likely returning for his final year of eligibility, he would remain a backup — or Stevens can transfer to another school and possibly play immediately.

“This is just part of the process,” Stevens said after the Nebraska game. “I know that I’m here for a reason. I’m a big believer in faith, and so sometimes I just think about, ‘I could play other places,’ yeah, but I’m happy I’m here. I have a lot of friends here, a great coaching staff and a very good team. So I’m happy to be here and overall just happy to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

But Stevens said he will decide whether to stay or go once the season ends and he has time to think about his options.

He will complete his undergraduate degree in telecommunications in the spring, he said, which means he could leave Penn State as a graduate transfer and play right away with two years of eligibility. A non-graduate transfer is required to sit out a year, per NCAA rules.

If he does decide to transfer, he will need permission from Penn State, whether it’s within the conference or not. If coach James Franklin does not grant permission, which is more likely if it’s within the Big Ten, Stevens can try to appeal it.

There is also speculation about offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead taking a job as a head coach elsewhere, which could play a factor in Stevens’ decision.

If McSorley, a fourth-year junior, returns for his final year of eligibility in 2018, Stevens would remain the backup and then start the following season. But that means he would start for only one season in his college career.

Therefore, an important factor in his decision will likely be whether McSorley returns next season.

“Whatever Trace wants to do, I’m happy for his success this year,” Stevens said. “He’s done a very good job, and if that’s [declaring for the NFL draft] something he wants to do, that’s his deal. But whatever he chooses to do, I’m proud of him.”

Preparing like a starter

Before the 2016 season, there was a legit quarterback competition between McSorley and Stevens, who match up closely in athleticism but have different strengths.

While McSorley has a great arm and can think quickly in the pocket, his size is a disadvantage, standing at 6-feet and 195 pounds. On the other hand, at 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, Stevens is built like an NFL quarterback.

Just because McSorley won the drawn-out competition, and Stevens was forced into the backup role, he didn’t disappear from the spotlight.

Stevens said he prepares every day as if he were a starter.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s never been a week where I didn’t feel prepared enough to play.”

In 12 games over the past two years, Stevens completed 13-of-23 passes (56.5 percent) for 183 yards, two touchdowns — with a 15-yard strike to Nick Bowers coming last Saturday — and no interceptions.

But the coaching staff has used the backup QB in other positions on offense as well.

Coach James Franklin said each week offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead dedicates a portion of the game plan to Stevens, whom Franklin said is one of the most respected players on the team.

In two seasons, Stevens rushed 36 times for 275 yards and three touchdowns. He also has eight receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns in various roles on offense.

“There is no doubt he brings a component and aspect to our offense, and really has all year long, and including last year,” the fourth-year head coach said. “We want to continue to do that. It’s that fine line of what do you do to continue to develop Tommy from a game perspective without messing up the rhythm of what we’re doing offensively as well.”

Teammate Mike Gesicki referred to Stevens as an “All-American decoy” because the offense tends to use him as a decoy in situations so that the opposing defense keys in on him.

“I thought it was funny,” Stevens said of the nickname. “When I read it the first time, I didn’t know if I should be mad at him. Overall, I think he said it because I stole a couple of his touchdowns.”

Stevens described one of those plays against Nebraska, which led to McSorley scoring. He entered the game three minutes into the second quarter.

“I remember I got in there, I got set, and I just kind of looked up,” Stevens said. “I made eye contact with a linebacker. All right. I looked over, and I’m looking at the safety, and I made eye contact with him. He’s looking at me. I turned back, looked at the corner, and he’s looking at me, so I’m like, ‘Man, all these people are looking at me.’ I couldn’t really take too much more time; it was time to go. But I kind of thought, ‘I might not get the ball here.’ ”

He didn’t. But it gave McSorley room to score.

Opponents on the lookout

When Moorhead incorporates Stevens in the offense, whether it’s as a wide receiver, tight end or running back, defenses notice and adjust accordingly.

“But it’s kind of cool,” Stevens said. “I remember the first time that we did the package at Iowa, there was a lot of confusion. People were kind of pointing and stuff. I noticed [opponents] practice for it and see it. Ultimately, I’m just happy to have an impact on the game.”

And he’s also eager to have that impact.

Gesicki, a senior tight end, said when the starters finish their reps in practice and the second-team comes on the field, Stevens tells him, “All right, get out. It’s my time to shine.”

“Tommy’s the man,” Gesicki said. “Obviously, being a backup quarterback is a tough role to handle, especially when you’re as talented as Tommy is. I think that he’s handled that situation extremely well. He comes to practice every single day, and you would think he’s the Heisman Trophy winner with the kind of energy that he has and the confidence that comes from him. Tommy is an unbelievable teammate.”

Gesicki said if there were anyone on the team who he’d be happy with having two of his touchdown catches, it would be Stevens.

“Whenever his time comes during his career as a college football player,” Gesicki said, “I’m going to be his No. 1 fan.”

Tracing his dreams

McSorley and Stevens have more in common than playing quarterback for Penn State.

They both played safety on their high school football teams, with McSorley at Briar Woods in Virginia, and Stevens at Decatur Central in Indiana.

Stevens said the two have spent a lot of time together since he arrived at Penn State, a semester after McSorley.

“We’re very alike, so it’s very easy to get along with Trace because there are a lot of similarities,” Stevens said. “There are just a lot of things that are easy to like about him, I guess you could say. So I don’t mind coming to work and being ready to play with him.”

Franklin noticed Stevens and McSorley had a strong relationship. He said they work well together, challenging each other and competing, even after the quarterback competition ended.

But that doesn’t mean Stevens is satisfied in his position.

“It’s not like he’s happy being the backup,” Franklin said Tuesday. “He wants to be the guy.”

The coach added it’s difficult for kids to understand that even if they aren’t playing currently, their time will come eventually. So he showed Stevens examples of good football college players who had waited their turn and took advantage of it when the time came.

Stevens knows his time will come. At this point, the question isn’t whether he is prepared to start — but rather when and where he will start.

“It’s not easy being the backup quarterback,” Franklin said. “It never is. I’ve lived that life myself. But the most important thing is how he conducts himself and how he prepares himself and how he trains. And he’s a pro. I do know when the time comes that Tommy Stevens is going to be ready.”