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Penn State plays 2 QBs at once, and it’s more than just a fun gimmick

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This is a clever way to keep your backup QB involved.

Penn State v Iowa
Tommy Stevens and Trace McSorley
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Except for Alabama, which has won with and without great QB play, most teams desperately need signal callers who can guide their fellow college-aged young men to victory. A consequence is that top programs stockpile as many great QB prospects as they can, which yields two new problems.

  1. How do you get them all to stick around and not transfer?
  2. What do you do when you have great QB play, but the backup is also one of your best players?

Some teams get really creative. The 2017 Iowa State Cyclones didn’t want to relegate backup QB Joel Lanning to being solely a wildcat trigger man, so they taught him to be their starting middle linebacker too. The Houston Cougars used star athlete D’Eriq King at WR until they made him the starting QB, a setup several other teams have tried.

At Penn State, they’re experimenting with the two-QB offense.

Back in the day, ULM made waves when they rolled out a two-QB package to the bewilderment of Baylor on national television. Other teams had tried two-QB gimmicks before (including in the NFL), but this really felt like something that could be maintained from play to play.

It amounted to a wrinkle in a zone-read offense, in which either QB (one was a righty the other was a lefty) might be the RB or the QB on a play and either could go for the edge only to pull up and throw a pass.

The only tell was that the lefty would tend to roll left ...

... and the righty to the right ...

... but they had a diverse enough zone-read playbook that you didn’t know whether the “QB” or the “RB” would become the dual threat. In both of these plays, it’s actually the ”RB” who throws the ball after receiving a handoff.

Since then, the football internet has buzzed about the possibilities of a two-QB package, only to be frustrated when no major program would give it much attention.

Enter the Penn State “Lion” quarterback.

Trace McSorley is going to graduate in command of most every passing record at Penn State, and over the last two years, he has led the Lions to consecutive 11-win seasons and a Big Ten championship. He’s not a guy you even think about benching.

But his backup, Tommy Stevens, is a 6’5, 225-pound freak athlete who narrowly lost the 2016 competition for Christian Hackenberg’s job to McSorley. The opportunity cost of him languishing on the bench was a fairly steep one. On top of that, Stevens considered transferring after the 2017 season so that he could use his two years of eligibility as a starter, rather than going all-in on one year after McSorley left.

“Tommy Stevens to me, in 75 percent of the programs out there, he’s a starter and a winner,” Penn State DC Brent Pry has said, adding that he’d love it if Stevens played defense too. “The kid can spin the ball, he can run it, he’s a take-charge guy.”

A likely factor in Stevens’ determination to stay was Penn State’s commitment to using him in a variety of roles. He’s technically listed as Penn State’s 12th starter, with the position name Lion. They tooled around with a two-QB package in 2017, which they should expand as part of a plan to rebuild an offense that lost OC Joe Moorhead, RB Saquon Barkley, TE Mike Gesicki, and WR DaeSean Hamilton.

So far, Stevens has six career rushing TDs, two on receptions, and three more as a passer. His versatile skill set as a sort of TE/RB/QB hybrid found a role in PSU’s power-read concept as a decoy runner (No. 2):

As a blocker or a target after faking a block on the perimeter:

As a passer after getting the ball, ULM-style:

And so on.

As the head coach puts it:

”I think it does a number of things,’’ Lions coach James Franklin said Tuesday when asked about the offense’s two-QB look.

”It allows us to get another guy involved in our game plan, it allows us to get Tommy game experience and on the field, which is always challenging at the quarterback position. It puts another weapon on the field.

”He’s a big, strong, fast guy, and they have to be concerned about him throwing the ball as well, so it makes a defense tentative when you have a quarterback like that carrying the ball.”

You can see many of the qualities that are likely going to make Stevens an effective starting QB in 2019. He has some real suddenness, particularly for such a big man, and the pass he gets off in that last clip is absurd.

It’s a scary package, but there are many reasons it’s only a change-up.

The Lions really only experimented with this package in 2017 and didn’t make much use of it during tougher games or crucial moments. The biggest challenge is the leap from “multi-faceted gadget” to “reliable, every-down package.”

To keep Stevens on the field, he needs to have mastery over a diverse enough set of skills that he isn’t a liability or a tell to the defense. You can only draw up and practice so many plays in which you’re a diversion. In 2017, he was almost exclusively a gadget player, albeit an effective one, as you can see:

The Lions play off the threat of Barkley here, who runs a fake reverse that draws Maryland’s nickel to chase him and results in a completely clear alley for Stevens.

Ultimately, the Lions need Stevens to be able to credibly do multiple things from multiple positions. Teaching him the blocks, routes, or RB keys to get there runs the risk of stunting his development as a passer and executioner of the greater Lion offense, though the plan isn’t for him to take over until 2019.

We’ve seen two teams win titles this decade with their backup QBs leading the way in the title game, so the opportunity cost of failing to develop the backup as a passer is at least as high as that of leaving a talented athlete on the bench.

There could be wiggle room for the Lions, though.

Their QBs regularly behave as RBs in their option-heavy run game anyway, and there are lots of basic stalk blocks, flat routes, and simple accoutrements to their main plays. It’s possible they could teach Stevens a growing list of skills that would justify snaps and practice reps without wasting too much time on techniques that would become irrelevant once Stevens took over as QB. McSorley’s ability to read blocks on inside option runs is a major feature to their offense, and reaching a similar level of competence at 6’5, 230 rather than McSorley’s 6’1, 205 would only serve Stevens.

In the meantime, we should see Penn State continue to explore the possibilities, particularly in the red zone, where misdirection and power are invaluable.

Perhaps the next team to experiment could build off that progress and finally realize the two-QB offense as an every-down option.