2020 Season Preview: Quarterbacks

By Nick Polak on October 5, 2020 at 9:11 am
Sean Clifford returns as Penn State's starting quarterback and is looking to build on a solid first season.
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Last Year

A year ago, Sean Clifford was the first quarterback not named Trace McSorley to start a game for the Nittany Lions since 2015. The results were quite promising. Though he struggled through his spells of inconsistencies, as one should expect with any first-time starter, he also showed why he was a blue-chip recruit and the first-ever two-time captain at the prestigious St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati.

Despite a late-season injury that knocked him out of the Ohio State game and hampered him in the Cotton Bowl win, Clifford ended the 2019 campaign with 2,654 passing yards on 189-of-319 passing (59.2%) while throwing for 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how effective he was as a rusher. No one expected him to be a statue in the pocket thanks to his athleticism, but not many likely foresaw 402 rushing yards and five scores on the ground. All in all, it was a strong debut season for the Ohio native.

Also worth mentioning is backup Will Levis. When Clifford was removed from the Ohio State game due to injuries, it was Levis who took over and showed that he has plenty to offer. Though his ability to be a human battering ram with the ball in his hands remains his greatest strength, his leadership in the near-comeback win in Columbus showed that this quarterback room is more than one man deep.

The Starter

No. 14 Sean Clifford (Sr./Jr., 6'2, 218 lbs)

Clifford enters the 2020 season as the unquestioned starter. A year ago, his greatest strengths were as a runner and as a medium-distance passer – two traits that provide a great base to build on. He did have a tendency to lock in on KJ Hamler, and still needs to work on keeping his eyes downfield when the pocket collapses, but with an offensive mind like Kirk Ciarrocca now behind him, the best is yet to come.

The big question will be what kind of leap he's able to take in year two atop the depth chart, but year one with his new offensive coordinator. Ciarrocca's previous quarterback, Tanner Morgan, went from a 58.6% passer who was mostly an afterthought to a 66% passer with a legitimate NFL future. If Clifford can make a similar jump, he could quickly become an all-time great.

THE BACKUP

No. 7 Will Levis (Jr./So. 6'3, 230 lbs.)

When it comes to Will Levis, the most interesting question might not be what his future holds, but what his short-term role will be in 2020. Ciarrocca has already been asked about Levis potentially filling the Seth Green role of goal line quarterback. While he said that the idea isn't out of the question, he also made sure to note that Levis is a true quarterback, whereas Green is just an athlete taking snaps at quarterback.

Still, given how effective Levis was near the goal line a year ago, it would be foolish to at least not consider him in such a role. Either way, Penn State should feel comforted knowing that its backup signal-caller can be counted on to deliver when called upon.

THE RESERVES

No. 9 Ta'Quan Roberson (So./Fr., 5'11, 197 lbs.)

No. 2 Micah Bowens (Fr./Fr., 5'11, 198 lbs.)

No. 17 Mason Stahl, Jr. (Fr./Fr., 6’0, 200 lbs.)

The depth chart took a bit of a hit when Michael Johnson Jr. chose to enter the portal back in June. Roberson and Bowens remain, however, giving the Lions four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Expect to see Roberson as many snaps as reasonably possible as they continue to look towards the future, as well as prepare for any injuries or positive Covid tests. Bowens, while incredibly athletic, is still very raw as a passer. He should provide great competition for the other backups on the practice field, however.

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