All eyes turn toward Penn State signal callers this week
All eyes are on the Penn State quarterback(s).
Sean Clifford has made a surprisingly quick return to practice, but his availability for today’s game with Illinois (noon, ABC) remains questionable.
The Nittany Lions (5-1, 2-1 in the Big Ten) should not need Clifford to beat the struggling Illinois (2-5, 1-3), but they almost certainly will need him to stand any chance next week at Ohio State.
In that regard, Clifford’s injury, suffered Oct. 9 at Iowa and rumored/feared to mean a more extensive absence, has eased concerns.
But there’s no reason to rush him back a week too soon.
Coming off an embarrassing performance after Clifford went out, when the Lions stopped moving the ball and suddenly couldn’t function at the line of scrimmage, this is an excellent opportunity to find out more about the backup situation.
Ta’Quan Roberson couldn’t get the snap executed as the Nits were flagged an unthinkable eight times for procedure issues as they unraveled against the Hawkeyes.
Some of it was the Kinnick Stadium crowd making itself a major factor, some of it was Roberson not being a commanding enough presence, and much of it was on the coaching staff – James Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich – for not adjusting.
They could have called timeout during the first stretch of false starts (three straight) or gone under center to simply things, even if it meant buttoning up the offense, handing it off and settling into a punting and defensive game.
Franklin said the breakdown was unique to his tenure, adding, “Our operation has been pretty consistent and not been an issue for my eight years.”
Which means if Roberson gets the start vs. the Illini, he won’t have long to prove he can manage the offense, and if he can’t, true freshman Christian Veilleux would be next.
The opponent and Beaver Stadium crowd should provide more comfort.
Franklin said the playbook is being adjusted accordingly.
“It changes,” he said. “With Sean, there’s a lot of things we can do. I wouldn’t necessarily say that our offense will change stylistically. But you want to say, ‘OK, Ta’Quan, what (plays) do you feel really good about? What are the 15 normal downs plays, what are the five third-down plays? What are the five red-zone plays that you feel best about?’ And rep those as much as you possibly can. And then same thing with Christian Veilleux.”
Obviously, the transfer of Will Levis, who wanted the chance to start and found it at Kentucky, has magnified Clifford’s injury.
Franklin said after the 2020 season that he was open to finding an option in the portal. He said the staff assessed every quarterback available and even brought a couple in for legal workouts but didn’t find a suitable fit.
For that, he can’t be blamed. Had he promised a starting position, he could have lost Clifford.
“It’s tricky, because it impacts so many things,” Franklin said. “Most guys want to come in and be guaranteed the starting job, depending on where they are in their careers and why they’re leaving.”
It’s more feasible with a graduating or departing quarterback.
Consequently, Franklin said, “I’m not in the business of making promises.”
Then there’s the consideration of any incoming players. The Lions have two quarterbacks committed for 2022, including Drew Allar, recently named the No. 1 QB prospect in the country, and York’s Beau Pribula.
“You’ve got to balance all of that and make sure that you’re in a good situation,” Franklin said.
Roberson and possibly Veilleux can help determine whether Penn State’s 2021 quarterback position is in a good situation beyond Sean Clifford.
The rest of this season may be riding on it.
Neil Rudel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.