STATE COLLEGE — Tommy Stevens will take over as Penn State’s starting quarterback eventually. Now, he’s helping starter Trace McSorley any way he can.
No. 4 Penn State’s do-it-all backup has emerged as another option in a loaded offense. Stevens has run for, caught and thrown for touchdowns already and could see more opportunities as Penn State looks for more ways to incorporate its big, athletic backup heading into the Big Ten opener at Iowa on Saturday.
“It puts another weapon on the field,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He’s a big, strong, fast guy, and then obviously they have to be concerned about him throwing the ball as well. I think this package will just continue to evolve.”
Stevens, who pushed McSorley for the starting job late into training camp last season, offers an intriguing option for an offense already with stars in Mike Gesicki and Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley.
He can line up like either one or even split out like a traditional wide receiver. Stevens’ knowledge of the offense gives him useful intelligence when it comes time to attack a defense from one of a handful of alignments.
Take his first career touchdown catch — which sparked Penn State’s 52-0 rout of Georgia State on Saturday — as an example.
Stevens lined up as a tight end would, off the line of scrimmage and to McSorley’s left. He slid right at the snap, hauled in a swing pass from McSorley and burst through Georgia State’s secondary for an opening 10-yard score.
Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead dialed up the play early in the week and surprised Stevens with it in practice.
“There weren’t a whole lot of times we did it in practice where I actually caught the ball,” Stevens said. “So I saw the [strong side linebacker] come off the edge and I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m actually going to catch the ball here.’ So Trace did a good job of evading, giving me a great ball, I caught it and did my best to score.”
His best is better than most backups who are usually relegated to holding clipboards and wearing headsets.
The former Indiana high school standout entered Penn State with sub-4.7 40-yard-dash speed, and his long strides coupled with his cutting ability made him a good dual-threat candidate to lead Moorhead’s offense. But Stevens, a year behind the junior McSorley, was edged by McSorley’s experience. So he immediately tried to find other ways to contribute.
It hasn’t taken Moorhead long to work Stevens in. It began last year against the Iowa Hawkeyes, who now have to worry about Stevens even more when they meet on Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.
Then, Stevens ran five times for 70 yards and added his first career touchdown in the 41-14 win.
Stevens enjoys the possibility that the Hawkeyes are likely preparing to see him on the field in one of many potential formations.
“Coach Moorhead has endless amounts of ideas about getting guys in space,” Stevens said. “They’ve got to spend more time to put this kind of stuff in in practice for us.”
Moorhead doesn’t have to change anything for Stevens if Penn State needs its backup to play his natural position. Franklin believes his No. 2 quarterback has a mastery of the offense on par with McSorley’s.
Stevens got a chance to show off his quarterbacking skills — and a glimpse of what could be in store after McSorley exhausts his eligibility — on Saturday, too.
After taking a hard hit on his first snap in relief of McSorley, Stevens threw a dart over the middle for a 35-yard touchdown to Saeed Blacknall. He took another big hit and watched Blacknall’s catch from his backside.
Afterward, he sounded like a starting quarterback, making a point to refute the criticism he’s heard of Blacknall’s slow start. Instead, Stevens credited his big receiver for making the play, even though it was a perfectly thrown ball.
“Tommy shows that ability all the time,” safety Marcus Allen said. “He has a second gear he can kick into. It’s another dynamic and electrifying player like that on the field. We can put a lot of stress on a D because you don’t know what we’re going to hit you with.”