Penn State head coach James Franklin wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback during Tuesday’s media press conference when the decision was between two names, and he wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback after Wednesday’s practice when the decision was suddenly between three names.
In speaking to the media over Zoom Tuesday, Franklin said that redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson and freshman Christian Veilleux were splitting reps evenly in practice, with senior starter Sean Clifford unable to practice due to the injury sustained against Iowa on Oct. 9 — a full-fledged competition between the young quarterbacks.
“We’re going to split the reps between Ta’Quan and Veilleux,” Franklin said. “We’ll split the reps and, like, I think someone asked me that question the other day about, ‘Will it be a competition?’ I think it’s always a competition, but it’s probably magnified a little bit. Looking at those guys very closely in practice and the scrimmage periods and things like that, and we will split reps between those two evenly and make it a competition.”
However, during Wednesday’s practice, a familiar No. 14 was on the field taking reps. After practice, Franklin said that all three quarterbacks — Clifford, Roberson and Veilleux — split reps in thirds. And according to Franklin, it wasn’t the first time Clifford practiced this week.
Yet with Clifford’s status still largely unknown, it’s unlikely he plays this week. Sure, the Nittany Lions would like to get him back into the lineup before Ohio State in two weeks, but if he’s rushed back and re-aggravates his injury against Illinois, that would be a worst-case scenario.
Franklin lauded Clifford’s physical and mental toughness on Tuesday and said he’s been doing everything he’s supposed to have been doing. It still might just be a bit too soon for him to come back.
In the event that Clifford is unable to go, the competition between Roberson and Veilleux will continue right up until the last moment, it appears. While Franklin said he’d like to have the decision made as soon as possible, the Nittany Lions aren’t in a position to do so yet.
Roberson, a 5-foot-11, 197-pound quarterback from Orange, N.J., has the benefit of added experience in the program, redshirting last season after appearing in one game as a true freshman in 2019, but his first real taste of college football came in relief of Clifford against Iowa.
Despite a poor 7-of-21 for 34 yards and two interception appearance against a good Hawkeyes’ defense, Roberson’s dual-threat ability would add a new dimension to the Lions’ offense. In the Iowa game, his cadence and line of scrimmage management led to issues in dealing with a very loud Kinnick Stadium. A clap snap wasn’t effective, leading to eight false start penalties against the Hawkeyes — including three in a row at one point.
“We’ve been working on [cadence and line of scrimmage management],” Franklin said. “I’ve been informed that’s been a conversation in town. It’s really no different than we’ve been doing in my eight years since we’ve been here. I think obviously Ta’Quan has been able to get more reps with the ones, more reps with Mike Miranda and it’s been good.”
Franklin said the offensive operation during his eight years at the helm of the program has been pretty consistent. But against Iowa, issues were quick to arise with Clifford out of the game. “But we’re working on it every single day and Ta’Quan’s reps with the ones in practice, with Mike Miranda, has also been helpful,” Franklin said. The Lions even practice with a decibel counter on the sideline, ratcheted up to be even louder than opposing stadiums.
While Roberson has the experience, both in time and actual in-game reps, Veilleux (a 6-foot-4, 200-pound from Ontario, Canada by way of Potomac, Maryland) is a legitimate contender to start against Illinois. The decision to have a competition for the starting spot dates all the way back to the offseason.
“Obviously, the reps, in general, are gold, right?” Franklin said. “So, I have worked with a coordinator in the past where he’s pretty much going to give all the reps to the starter and no reps to the backups, and the whole reason is every rep is critical to get them ready to play on Saturday. But I think there’s always gotta be a developmental aspect, so we’ve always — in spring ball and in summer camp — given reps to all three quarterbacks in the top three spots on the depth chart.”
Franklin said once the season starts, the emphasis narrows to the top two guys on the depth chart — which happened to be Clifford and Roberson. However, Franklin said the competition between Roberson and Veilleux is relatively even. Roberson impressed during spring ball and summer camp, and his status was secure entering the season. Franklin is able to use the spring and summer ball to evaluate all practices — the cumulative of everything — to see if gut reactions are backed up by stats. It’s an important process in determining not just the quarterback depth chart but every position.
“There’s also growth that you’re looking for, a player that’s been in the program for a couple of years should really be widening that gap, and a player that’s been in the program a less amount of time, he’s gotta close that gap as much as he can,” Franklin said.
“It’s not oranges to oranges, it’s not even, but that also makes the argument if it’s close, it really shouldn’t be, right?” Franklin said. “The guy that’s been in the program for a long time, and the guy that’s getting the most reps should be able to widen that gap, and right now, it’s somewhat close.”
Regardless of who “wins” the competition, Franklin has the utmost respect for both as young men and football players.
“I’ve gotta meeting with both of those guys [Wednesday], kinda challenge both of them and let them know that we’re gonna be evaluating everything, and the good thing is both of them — I’m very impressed with as young men and as competitors and as football players. This won’t be any new information to them.”
With Clifford potentially out and two inexperienced quarterbacks behind him fighting for the starting spot, some might question whether or not the Lions could’ve done more in securing the position before the season. Franklin said he did everything he could.
“I don’t see how we could have been more aggressive,” Franklin said. “We were through, and we evaluated every single guy that was out there. We had some guys come in and actually work out, by the rules, and I think you guys heard me say a year ago that we were committed to doing it if we found the right situation and it made sense.
In fact, Franklin thought, “just to sign a guy to sign a guy, we actually thought that would’ve been detrimental.”
The Lions take on Illinois at noon on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. And one way or another, we’ll know who is suiting up for PSU before kickoff.