For a long time during Penn State’s rise to prominence under Joe Paterno, the quarterback’s primary job was simple: Don’t screw up.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that between Chuck Burkhart, Tom Shuman, Todd Blackledge and John Shaffer — all signal callers who led the Nittany Lions to undefeated seasons and/or national championships — only Blackledge ranks among the program’s 10 most prolific career passers, and he’s No. 9 with 4,812 career yards. It’s the result of those men playing in more conservative schemes that turned to the star power of running backs — from Charlie Pittman to John Cappelletti to Curt Warner to D.J. Dozier — to carry the offense.
Things started to change in the 1990s, when the passing game opened up for Kerry Collins and Wally Richardson, Nos. 7 and 10 on the all-time list, respectively. But it wasn’t until Rashard Casey in 2000 that Penn State became difficult to define at the position by traditional standards.
An athletic guy, Casey was asked to use his mobility as part of the game plan far more than many of his predecessors. From that point, Penn State has meandered between a dual threat (Michael Robinson), pocket movers (Darryll Clark and Rob Bolden) and pro-style passers (Zack Mills, Anthony Morelli, Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenbeg) with heavier hands in the offense than many of those who came before them.
With Trace McSorley’s ascension to the starting role last week, Penn State again has the appearance of an identity crisis on its hands, because he probably falls somewhere between those dual threat and pocket mover categories, a different flavor than the team has had behind center the past four years in McGloin and Hackenberg.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Penn State won Big Ten titles with Robinson (2005) and Clark (2008) under center. Though their games were different, with Robinson getting a lot more designed runs, their athleticism made them both outliers historically — for the better. And a look back at James Franklin’s career at Vanderbilt shows he’s had success with QBs in that mobile mold — his duo of Austin Carta-Samuels and Patton Robinette rushed for more than 300 combined yards in 2013, when Vanderbilt went 9-4 and Franklin’s coaching stock was at its zenith.
The larger point, though, is that there’s something to be said for consistency, and coalescing around a vision of what Penn State’s QBs should look like moving forward seems preferable to regularly trying to tailor offenses to different skill sets.
Because while Robinson and Clark worked out well, Penn State is widely considered to have squandered a lot of promising quarterbacks since 2000. Hackenberg, Morelli, Bolden, Paul Jones and Paul Devlin all came into Penn State as 4- or 5-star prospects out of high school. Hackenberg and Morelli never seemed to put it all together on teams that won no more than nine games, while Bolden, Jones and Devlin failed to make any consistent impacts at all.
It is impossible to separate that mixed track record from the mixed identity.
And so McSorley carries a lot more than just Penn State’s 2016 season on his shoulders as he takes up the starting QB mantle. Unlike a lot of those names above, he comes in as a 3-star talent, meaning he’ll be a nice test of fitting a quarterback to a system vs. fitting a system to a highly touted quarterback, as Franklin was forced to try to do when he inherited Hackenberg from Bill O’Brien’s pro-style schemes two years ago.
If McSorley, a redshirt sophomore, succeeds, he could become the prototype that Penn State attempts to replicate or improve upon for years after he’s gone. The Lions could potentially first turn to Tommy Stevens, the redshirt freshman McSorley beat out for the job this year who also happens to have a ground dimension to his game. Or they could mine the high school ranks for others like them.
The goal would be to have everyone listening to the same message from the coaching staff. To have underclassmen learning from similar upperclassmen. To have skill players who were recruited to fit one scheme not scrambling to adjust to another. To have coaches striving to perfect an offense rather than scrambling to create a new one every couple of years.
Is that the direction Penn State intends to go? That’s far from clear at this point. Sean Clifford, a Nit commit for the 2017 recruiting class out of St. Xavier in Cincinnati, is a 4-star prospect considered to be a pro-style QB, so it’s questionable whether he’d fit in the mold of a McSorley or Stevens.
A lot can happen between now and when Clifford would be in position to challenge for the starting job, though. If McSorley has a big year making plays on the run in Joe Moorhead’s fast-paced offense, that may prompt any number of changes to Penn State’s plans for the future.
Ideally, those changes would include moving the program beyond just picking a quarterback to deciding what it wants in every quarterback it recruits.
And while McSorley and his successors may not look a lot like those who led the storied teams of yesteryear, finding consistency at the position is something worth striving for.