The hottest question around State College the past month hasn’t been how high Saquon Barkley will get drafted or whether Mike Gesicki has worked his way into the first round, but rather this: What’s going on with Tommy Stevens?
The Nittany Lions’ backup quarterback and projected 2019 starter, whose athleticism has generated a lot of buzz within the program, had weighed the opportunity to leave Penn State as a graduate transfer and take the field for some other FBS program this fall rather than wait another season behind starter Trace McSorley. Well, Happy Valley can now exhale: Stevens is staying.
“I don’t think it was a very hard decision at all,” Stevens told SI. “I wanted to look and see if there was a better opportunity for me out there. Ultimately, this is still a fantastic place. I love it here. I have a lot of good friends with great relationships. This is the best place for me.
“I think this is the perfect offense for me. I’m excited to continue to learn and try to get better each day, push Trace, and ultimately give our team the best chance we can at being successful.”
Stevens didn’t visit any other programs, but he told SI he did speak to some other FBS coaches, though he declined to specify which ones. He made his decision last week and knew there had been a lot of speculation about his future in the Penn State community. “I was taking my time and just trying to figure out what was best for me,” he says. “I knew this is the best place for me. I know what I have here. I’m very happy here. I couldn’t be more fired up to be back into the swing of things.”
The 6'5", 225-pound Indiana native, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, is an intriguing talent. Seeing the field both in situational roles and late in blowouts, Stevens has run for 388 yards and six touchdowns in the past two seasons. He was 14-of-27 for 158 yards and three TDs through the air last fall and also displayed some of his versatility with 12 receptions.
“One of things I think helped is how we approached it,” head coach James Franklin says of the prospect of Stevens transferring. “It wasn’t defensive. It wasn’t confrontational. It wasn’t argumentative. It was, Tommy, I get it. But here’s what I’m gonna ask you to do. Let’s not make any decisions before you have all the information because the thing with us is you know what you’re getting. You know the offense. You know the coaches. You know your teammates. You know the scheme. You know the fit. You know the personnel you’re gonna be surrounded with. You know all of that stuff. If you find something that makes sense and is a no-brainer, then I’ll get it and be unbelievably supportive. But what I don’t wanna do is close this door right now and now you don’t find what you’re completely looking for and it’s not a great match and you feel like you’ve forced yourself into a corner and feel like you have to leave.”
Last December, the Penn State staff listed Stevens as their starting “Lion” on their Fiesta Bowl depth chart as a reflection of the player’s worth and his versatility. Stevens’s role this fall figures to be something of a Swiss Army knife for the Penn State offense, which must replace leading receiver DaeSean Hamilton in addition to Barkley and Gesicki. Stevens says he hopes to fill some of that void and wants to do whatever his team needs, whether that’s running down on kickoffs, catching passes or throwing them. “Whatever role they ask me to do, I’m gonna do it at 110%,” he says.
Franklin envisions Stevens being a big factor especially as a second quarterback on the field as he continues to develop.
“We can use him as a Wildcat quarterback,” he says. “We can use him in some situational stuff in the red zone. We can use him in the four-minute [offense]. We can use him as a receiver. We also want to look at him for some spots on special teams as well. With Tommy, he wants to be a leader on the team and have a significant role. The other thing that was important to me was ultimately that we continue to develop for the position that he wants to play. That’s where it gets tricky with the fine line and the balance of getting him trained so that he can continue to develop into the type of quarterback that he wants to be but also giving him an opportunity with position flexibility to take on some other responsibility to get him on the field. The tricky part is how do you balance those things?”
Franklin points out that it was “a neck-and-neck race” when McSorley was named the starting quarterback going into the 2016 season after serving as Christian Hackenberg’s backup. “Everybody just assumed it was gonna be Trace but internally, it was legitimately a battle,” Franklin says. “It was a tough decision to make and tough for Tommy to hear but he handled it extremely well. The difference is Trace is 6'1" and 205 pounds and Tommy is 6'5", 225 pounds. It’s a similar type of earned respect in terms of his approach and his demeanor, the type of teammate he is and what he can do on the field on Saturdays.”
That respect was evident in how the fan base responded to Stevens this offseason with rumors swirling that he might be leaving. He says it was something fans would ask him about every day.
“Wherever I’d go, it didn’t matter where I was,” he says with a chuckle. “I could be out to dinner with my girlfriend and people would walk up to say, ‘Hey, hope you’re staying.’ I’d walk into class and people say ‘We Are’ ... hope you’re staying.’ Little stuff like that. It just shows me how important some people believe I am. It’s a big family here at Penn State. It does mean a lot to me that people are showing me that kind of support and how much they want me to stay.
“It wasn’t necessarily a deciding factor but I’d be lying if I said that getting patted on the back like that doesn’t feel good. This fan base is incredible. The student section every home game is incredible. It’s packed. There’s nothing like Penn State fans. To say they didn’t play a factor, I’d be lying. It’s an incredible place top to bottom, and I couldn’t be any more fired up about coming back.”