So Joe Moorhead has himself a new quarterback. Or rather, an old one.
That’s what we found out Friday with the announcement that Penn State senior Tommy Stevens decided to reunite with Moorhead in Starkville for his final year of eligibility.
There’s a potential ripple effect to that in Stevens’ quest to finally win a starting job.
Let’s discuss some initial thoughts on what the move means for everyone involved:
1. I’m surprised
When I did my initial list of possible destinations for Stevens on our Big Ten site (SaturdayTradition.com), I didn’t have MSU as a destination. When someone asked me why I didn’t include MSU with the Moorhead connection, I related it back to the Keytaon Thompson factor. As in, why would Stevens go to a place with a backup who looked like an obvious candidate to win the starting job?
As it turns out, I was wrong.
I wasn’t that surprised that MSU got a visit, but rather that Moorhead was able to convince Stevens that even with Thompson on board, there was an opportunity for him. I based that on not only what I had seen from Thompson in a limited sample size — TaxSlayer.com Bowl where he beat Lamar Jackson, the 7-touchdown game last year, etc., — but what I heard Moorhead say about the third-year quarterback.
That leads me to my next thought.
2. This says something about Thompson’s development
Here’s the thing. If Moorhead was 100% happy with where Thompson was, he wouldn’t have even entertained the thought of bringing in a grad transfer. But he did. So to me, that suggests that Thompson isn’t where Moorhead wants him to be after spending roughly a year and a half in his system.
When I had Moorhead on The SDS Podcast a couple months ago, he referenced the need for Thompson to improve his accuracy, and basically that was going to be the thing that was going to determine his level of success. It’s a fair criticism. We’re talking about someone who’s a career 48% passer.
No offense to MSU’s group of wideouts, but they aren’t exactly the type to elevate a quarterback with accuracy issues. We saw that last year. What we also last year was Nick Fitzgerald repeatedly struggle with his accuracy, especially downfield.
I can’t help but wonder if Moorhead feared a repeat of 2018. He was aware of the frustration from fans who said “we have this supposedly great offensive mind and we can’t score any points with a quarterback who can’t complete a pass downfield.” Personally, I think Thompson is a better downfield passer than Fitzgerald, but I’m not the one evaluating them every day like Moorhead.
I have to believe at the root of this is a fear that Thompson is still yet not the all-around player Moorhead wants running his system.
3. But don’t forget …
Thompson still has a redshirt available. He played in 6 games last year and 10 the year before that, which means Moorhead can use the 4-game redshirt rule with Thompson if Stevens is the guy in 2019. Thompson would still have 2 years of eligibility and he could become the starter next year when Stevens is done. There are obviously no guarantees that Stevens is the guy or that the redshirt rule would keep Thompson from entering the transfer portal.
It’s still a bold move by Moorhead to risk potentially losing Thompson and even someone like 4-star 2018 MSU signee Jalen Mayden — Moorhead’s first quarterback recruit — to roll the dice on a year of Stevens. Mayden used his redshirt last year, so 2019 will be one of his 4 years of eligibility.
In this era of quarterbacks transferring, it seems rare that a grad transfer enters and the quarterback room doesn’t lose at least 1 member. It’ll be interesting to see how Thompson responds to this move knowing the options he has.
4. I wouldn’t necessarily assume Stevens is the starter
That bears repeating because usually when coaches grab a grad transfer to play on a team without a returning starting quarterback, they become the guy. We saw how obvious that was last year with LSU and Joe Burrow.
But we’ve also seen situations like Tennessee last year where Jeremy Pruitt and Tyson Helton got Keller Chryst from Stanford, only to wind up starting Jarrett Guarantano. Did that motivate Guarantano? Perhaps. Is there a chance that Moorhead got Stevens to push Thompson? I wouldn’t be surprised.
I think Moorhead is a straight shooter when it comes to these things. I’d be surprised if he told Stevens that he’d be the starter if he came to MSU because this would have been a slam dunk decision, and I don’t think it was. My best guess is that Moorhead told Stevens that Thompson wasn’t promised anything and that if he were to come, he’d have a chance to win the starting job he always wanted. As cliché as it is, this job will likely be determined by how Stevens and Thompson handle this situation in fall camp.
Don’t forget that when Moorhead arrived at Penn State, it was an extremely close battle between Stevens and Trace McSorley. Moorhead liked Stevens so much that he found unique ways to get him involved. They’d use him on jet sweeps, he’d line up as a wildcat-type quarterback, he’d split out wide and catch the occasional pass. Penn State literally invented the “Lion” position for Stevens.
As you can see here, you can have some fun with a dude who’s 6-5, 240 pounds and can move pretty well (via Big Ten Network):
There’s also the possibility that if Stevens doesn’t win the job, Moorhead would potentially involve him in that fashion like he did in 2016-17. That would add some much-needed spice to what was often a very bland MSU offense last year.
5. This should still be a good thing for MSU
More competition is always good. Moorhead just added one more viable option to replace Fitzgerald and ultimately run the system the way he wants to run it. That’s a positive no matter who wins the starting job.
Is there a chance that Stevens competes at a Burrow-like level for MSU? Absolutely, though I’d argue his transition would be even easier than Burrow’s because of his familiarity in the offense. Burrow left Ohio State after spring ball because he was stuck behind Dwayne Haskins following 3 years of waiting behind the B1G’s all-time leading passer (J.T. Barrett). We didn’t know Burrow’s ceiling at the time. I’m still not 100% sure we know Burrow’s ceiling yet.
I don’t think we know Stevens’ ceiling yet, which might have been appealing to Moorhead. The sample size, even after 4 years, is still relatively small because of his role as McSorley’s backup (only 41 career pass attempts). Not beating out McSorley isn’t a knock on anyone considering he was the most prolific quarterback in Penn State’s illustrious history. Stevens could have done the 2-year Burrow plan last year but stayed.
Unfortunately for him, he didn’t like where he stood with the Penn State coaching staff even with McSorley gone. That could have had something to do with the ankle injury that kept Stevens out of action down the stretch and into spring camp.
Fortunately for MSU, Stevens should have all the motivation in the world to make the most of his fifth and final year of college.
The only way this thing backfires on MSU is if Mayden, Thompson or even the talented true freshman Garrett Shrader enters the transfer portal. That can still happen. But if that’s what needs to happen for the Bulldogs to have a more consistent, balanced offense and to take the step up that few expect them to, it’ll be worth it.
I do know one thing — the offseason in Starkville got a little more interesting Friday.