Follow along with our Penn State Recruiting Rewind series. If you missed out, be sure to read our look back at DB Marcus Allen, RB Saquon Barkley, LB Brandon Bell, LB Jason Cabinda, LB Koa Farmer, TE Mike Gesicki, WR Chris Godwin, QB Christian Hackenberg, WR DaeSean Hamilton and QB Trace McSorley.
Penn State coach James Franklin landed a building-block quarterback commitment in May 2014, four months into his tenure and well under way with a first full-cycle recruiting class. Brandon Wimbush, considered the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in 247Sports 2015 composite rankings, pledged to the program in May and represented the Nittany Lions en route to Elite 11 finals that summer.
Wimbush, who starred at New Jersey powerhouse St. Peter’s Prep, became a face of Franklin’s hot start on the recruiting trail. Though the coach retained Bill O’Brien era pledge Michael O’Connor and convinced 3-star prospect Trace McSorley to follow him from Vanderbilt within weeks of his arrival, Franklin remained on the hunt for a top-tier passer in the next class.
Wimbush, who held offers from Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Tennessee, fit the bill. At least that was the case until he opted out of the class in October by flipping his commitment to Notre Dame, where he is expected to start this season.
The initial result stung in State College, but Franklin and the Nittany Lions staff turned attention to rival Big Ten territory. The search for a replacement led Penn State to Indianapolis, home of Decatur Central High School QB Tommy Stevens.
The 6-4, 200-pound prospect possessed impressive athleticism, evidenced by a 4.7 40-yard dash and standout play on both sides of the ball. Stevens, who recorded 25 tackles and 2 interceptions as a senior defensive back, pledged to the in-state Hoosiers in June 2014.
At the time, it was viewed as a pivotal pickup for Indiana. A priority target of the staff, Stevens was viewed as a local kid they could build around.
“I’ve been their guy since Day 1 and that means a lot to me,” Stevens told Mark Ambrogi of The Indianapolis Star after his commitment.
The recruitment of quarterbacks often shapes up like a game of dominoes, as one decision leads to another. In this case, the departure of Wimbush from Penn State’s class became bad news for the Hoosiers.
Stevens completed 59 percent of pass attempts for 1,891 and 16 touchdowns as a senior, per MaxPreps. He also showcased ability as a rusher, adding 842 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
This skill set warranted the “dual-threat” label from recruiting-industry leaders, though the ratings he received fell short of those attributed to Wimbush. Here’s a look at how Stevens was viewed as a recruit.
- 247Sports: No. 23 dual-threat quarterback; No. 824 overall; 3-star prospect
- ESPN: No. 24 dual-threat quarterback; unranked nationally; 3-star prospect
- Rivals: No. 18 dual-threat quarterback; unranked nationally; 3-star prospect
- Scout: No. 28 quarterback (no designation); unranked nationally; 3-star prospect
During the course of his impressive senior campaign, Stevens reciprocated newfound interest from Penn State. He used an official visit to Happy Valley, attending the team’s overtime loss to Ohio State.
Stevens called the experience “awesome” during a follow-up discussion with Kyle Neddenriep of The Indianapolis Star. Less than three weeks later, he flipped his commitment to the Nittany Lions without returning to Indiana’s campus.
The feelings that accompanied Stevens’ initial trip to Penn State lingered into November, and he pulled the trigger on a pledge Nov. 10.
— Tommy Stevens (@TMS_II) December 29, 2014
“I don’t know what it is, it just felt right,” Stevens told Nick Polak of Black Shoe Diaries. “The place is incredible, they treated my family and I very well and … there are many different things I could say. They treated us very well down there and there was just a feeling that I knew that I’d be back eventually.”
He returned to town in January, enrolling early as a somewhat unheralded member of Franklin’s first full-cycle class. Stevens was considered the 20th-best prospect in a 26-player class, according to composite rankings.
Christian Hackenberg was the unquestioned starter at quarterback in 2015. Following his departure for the NFL, Stevens battled for the job, though it ultimately went to McSorley, who set several school records in 2016 as a redshirt sophomore.
PSU defensive coordinator Brent Pry: "Tommy Stevens, to me, 75 percent of the programs out there, he's a starter."
— Cory Giger (@CoryGiger) April 22, 2017
Stevens continued to work diligently in the No. 2 role, drawing rave reviews from Franklin throughout the 2017 spring camp. He punctuated that performance with 216 yards and 3 touchdowns in the April 22 spring game, earning offensive MVP honors in front of 71,000 fans.
“What [everyone else] is starting to see more of, we’ve been seeing this in practice,” Franklin said during his postgame conference. “I told [the media] last year that was a quarterback battle. I think we’ve got two quarterbacks that we can win with. You have to have that.”
— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) April 22, 2017
Stevens, swarmed by media members afterward, appears to be one of the best No. 2 quarterbacks in college football. If McSorley suffers an injury or opts to enter the NFL draft early after the 2017 campaign, the transition to a new quarterback should be met by the staff with significant confidence.
“As you can imagine, [being a backup] is tough at times,” Stevens said during that media session. “But, at the same time, I try not to make this about me. I don’t want it to be about me. I just want to come in and do my job, do whatever I can to help us win.”