In Ta’Quan Roberson’s senior year of high school at DePaul Catholic, he broke his ankle. That’s not uncommon for a quarterback, but when X-rays didn’t show a bone break, he went into his next game against Paramus Catholic — two weeks later — and threw five touchdown passes on that broken ankle. That is uncommon.
Roberson finished his senior season at DePaul Catholic on a broken ankle, completing 146-of-261 passing attempts for 2,432 yards with 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions. And while throwing passes on a broken ankle is tough enough, he even continued to run, rushing for 314 yards on just 38 attempts (8.3 yards a carry) with three more touchdowns.
And of course, Roberson fought through the ankle aches and pain — basically on one leg — to play in the playoffs one last time.
“I remember a playoff game that year, we lost in the semifinals, but he played an unbelievable game,” DePaul Catholic offensive coordinator Nick Campanile said. “He actually ran for 80 yards in the game on a broken ankle. He’s just such a tough kid and such a team-oriented guy.”
After a 49-0 win over St. Thomas Aquinas in the first round of the state playoffs, DePaul Catholic entered a semifinals contest against Mater Dei with the chance to go to the championship game. With a bum ankle, Roberson battled to 381 yards through the air, two touchdowns and two picks, and 78 yards on the ground. A 28-23 loss ended DePaul’s season, and Roberson’s DePaul career, but his football career was just beginning.
Roberson was a part of a strong 2018 class, checking in as the 274th-ranked recruit in 247Sports’ cycle. As the eighth-ranked dual-threat quarterback, in a class with Auburn’s Bo Nix, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Sam Howell, and as he redshirted in 2019 and took the extra COVID season in 2020, he’s technically a first-year quarterback.
As a freshman in 2019, he attempted just one pass and was redshirted. In 2020, he suited up for the season finale against Rutgers but didn’t attempt a throw or rush. Roberson’s first actual taste of college football didn’t come until 2021, with former Nittany Lions’ backup Will Levis having left for Kentucky. Entering this season, he hadn’t attempted a pass since 2019. And he hadn’t completed a pass since playing at DePaul Catholic.
The plan for Penn State before the season was to get Roberson meaningful reps in games this season, but perhaps no one expected his first meaningful reps to come on the road against No. 3 Iowa in the biggest game of the season thus far. With Lions’ starter Sean Clifford exiting via injury, Roberson entered the contest for the first extended look of his young career.
With two passing attempts against Ball State on Sept. 11, one for a 23-yard touchdown, Roberson completed his first pass in a game since 2018. He completed three-of-five attempts for 28 yards against Villanova two weeks later — his most prolific start since high school — but nothing could have prepared for what he’d face against Iowa.
With Clifford knocked out of the game, Roberson was forced into a game — cold — against the most prolific secondary in the country in a hostile environment at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
It wasn’t a dream start for Roberson as he trotted onto the field midway through the second quarter. He fumbled on his first play, but it was recovered by the Lions. Three consecutive false starts killed any chance for a momentum-building drive, and the Lions punted on 4th-and-26 from their own 9-yard line.
On Roberson’s second drive, after starting with a promising five-yard completion, he fired a deep shot prayer of a pass — a similar play that ended with a Clifford interception earlier in the game — that, yes, ended in another interception from the toughest secondary in the nation.
That about sums up Roberson’s inconsistent night, and with the Lions leading 17-10 when he entered the game, the loss isn’t on his shoulders, but it’d be impossible to argue that Roberson played well enough to win the game. He completed 7-of-21 passing attempts for 34 yards and two interceptions and added 27 more yards on 10 rushing attempts in a losing effort for the Lions. It was unfortunate for many reasons, obviously considering the stakes, but it was clear that he wasn’t ready for the stage.
With just seven passing attempts this season, eight total in his Lions’ career, no one could have reasonably expected him to enter a game against a Top 4 team, against the best scoring defense in the nation, and succeed.
“I really don’t know [if he was prepared],” Campanile said. “I haven’t talked to him enough about that or the coaches, I don’t know the type of reps he gets during the week, but I imagine it’s not a ton. So, I don’t know that he was as well prepared — I think with a full week of practice this week, if he gets the start on Saturday, he’s a completely different quarterback.”
However, Campanile felt like Roberson did some things well for coming into such a tough environment. Of course, it wouldn’t have been an easy situation for anyone to come into, even if it hadn’t been their first true game in college football. Aside from using his legs, Campanile felt like Roberson made some passes that could’ve moved the chains. However, he also was inaccurate in moving the ball down the field, his receivers missed some passes and the Lions’ offense could only muster three points with Clifford on the bench.
With Clifford’s status undetermined at this point, his ailment unknown, Roberson could be the starter for the season, for a game or even not at all. However, if Roberson is forced into the lineup for an extended look, can Roberson be relied upon to bounce back? Campanile feels confident that he can and will.
“He’s gonna handle himself incredibly well,” Campanile said. “I spoke to him for a little, not much because I know he had a million people reaching out to him after the game, we just talked through text for a little bit Saturday night. Of course, he was upset, but he’s a very resilient kid and he’s as mentally tough a kid as I’ve ever been around.”
With the poor performance against Iowa, there has been blowback from some around the internet — at least those willing to rip on a first-time starting quarterback going against a top-ranked defense. It would be easy for Roberson to get in his head, read too much into the vitriol and lose his nerve. But with a week off before a home game against Illinois, Roberson could be preparing for his first start since 2018.
And coming off such a rough start, facing adversity on and off the field, Campanile feels if anyone can bounce back, it’s Roberson.
Campanile cannot speak highly enough about Roberson, lauding his character as an incredible young man, but of course, it goes much deeper than just being the guy who earned the love and respect of the students, teachers and administration of DePaul. He’s a true quarterback.
“He can do it all,” Campanile said. “He’s a great runner, he has a cannon — when I say he can make all the throws, he can make every throw on the football field. He offers a lot, and he’s really smart too. In college football, you get so many different looks, so many different blitzes, so it really takes a full week to prepare. I think just knowing going in that you’re the starter, you have a completely different mindset throughout the week leading up to the game.”
However, entering the Iowa game cold, Roberson was forced into the most important game of his life without preparation. In entering the game against the toughest secondary he’s ever faced, he was forced into the toughest situation of football life — a universally tough situation for quarterbacks. For reference, Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa threw five interceptions against Iowa.
Roberson is still a work in progress, and one area that Campanile feels like he can improve is just the mental aspect of his game — which comes with more and more reps in game situations. Roberson has had three different offensive coordinators in his time with the Lions, so it’s been tough to get in a groove, but in having learned the system and now getting reps, his play will improve.
One of the areas that Roberson needs to improve upon from the Iowa game, play recognition and awareness, will simply come from a week of preparation and reps in games. A particular instance that Campanile saw was a fourth down play late in the fourth quarter.
“The fourth down that [Penn State] completed that was just short of the first down, [Iowa] was running like a mesh concept, and it looked like Ta’Quan thought they were in man — they disguised it. I think it was actually a zone, and those are the things — with a week to prepare — I think he’ll make all those right reads and get the ball to all the right guys.”
The 4th-and-3 ended with a turnover on downs, Roberson throwing a quick screen that was brought down a yard from the line to gain. And that basically the end for both Roberson and Penn State’s afternoon.
With two weeks of preparation, if Clifford is unable to go against Illinois, Campanile feels like Roberson would have a major resurgence. With an indomitable work ethic and strong mental fortitude, Campanile thinks a totally different, completely confident quarterback would ease some of the concerns surrounding his play.
Despite the rough debut outing for Roberson, Campanile is confident that people will be proven wrong in early takes about the young quarterback. Roberson has been proving people wrong his whole life after all, as Campanile said.
“They say coaches aren’t supposed to have favorites, but that’s my guy,” Campanile said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have a kid that I liked as much as Ta’Quan.”