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Smeltzer: The Draft Night Fall of Will Levis Reminder That James Franklin, Penn State Didn’t Blow It

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Will Levis

I’m not here to dunk on Will Levis.

I didn’t cover Penn State football when he played there from 2018-20, so I can’t speak to anything, good or bad, about Levis’s character.

Even though I don’t know the man, I can’t help but feel for him.

He was one of 17 players invited to watch the first round of the NFL Draft live in Kansas City, and everybody watching expected him to go on night one, maybe even with one of the top five picks. It’s probably safe to assume that Levis expected himself to go off the board, too.

After the first five picks, Levis was still on the board.

He was still there after the next five picks.

And the next five picks.

And the next five picks.

Then, when the Chiefs selected Felix Anudike-Uzomah with the 31st overall pick— the last in the first round, thanks to the Dolphins having to forfeit their selection— the epic slide was complete.

Many Penn State fans claim that this wasn’t a surprise.

Nonsense. Regardless of whether Levis should have been a first-round pick, almost everybody expected him to be, and therefore, his not going on night one will probably go down as the 2023 Draft’s biggest shock.

Who knows why it happened?

A report says that a toe injury may have contributed to the drop.

Maybe that’s the case. But, to me, this should be a reminder that James Franklin didn’t drop the ball by making Sean Clifford his No. 1 quarterback.

And I would have said this no matter where Levis went in the draft.

Barring an even bigger shock, Levis will go in Round 2 Friday night. Assuming that happens, he’ll still be going much higher than Clifford, who might not be drafted at all.

Levis and Clifford were teammates from 2018-20.

Before the 2019 season, Clifford won the starting QB job, succeeding three-year starter Trace McSorley. Clifford went on to start every game but two over the next two seasons. The two Clifford didn’t start— against Rutgers in the 2019 regular-season finale and against Iowa the next year— were started by Levis. Penn State beat Rutgers and got blown out by Iowa.

When Levis wasn’t starting, Penn State used him primarily as a runner, sporadically putting him into games. Before the 2021 season, Levis transferred to Kentucky and became its starter for the next two years.

Over time, Levis became one of the hottest quarterbacks out there for NFL Draft talk, and Clifford stayed as an afterthought that many felt didn’t deserve a chance to play in the league.

This, my friends, is how the “Franklin got it wrong” narrative began.

There were other factors, too. Kentucky had a better 2021 than Penn State, going 10-3 with Levis compared to Penn State going 7-6 with Clifford. But, mainly, Franklin and co. got heat for their handling of Levis because of mock drafts.

For those who don’t believe it by now, Levis didn’t have a great two years at Kentucky.

Here are some of his numbers.

2021: 66% completion rate, 2,826 yards, 24 TD, 13 INT, 148.3 RTG

2022: 65.4% completion rate, 2,406 yards, 19 TD, 10 INT, 151.9 RTG

Now, here are Clifford’s numbers from the same time period.

2021: 61% completion rate, 3,107 yards, 21 TD, 8 INT, 134.4 RTG

2022: 64.4% completion rate, 2,822 yards, 24 TD, 7 INT, 150.5 RTG

So, going just by the numbers— and, yes, I know numbers aren’t everything— Levis had the edge over Clifford in 2021, and the two were pretty even this past season.

Something from 2022 that might give Clifford the edge is QBR, or “total quarterback rating.” According to ESPN, QBR “incorporates all of a quarterback’s contributions to winning, including how he impacts the game on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties.

Clifford’s QBR this past season was 73.9, good for 24th in the country.

Levis’s was 60.9, good for 59th.

Oh, and it’s also worth noting that Clifford’s team went 11-2 and won the Rose Bowl— where Clifford was the offensive MVP— and Levis’s went 7-6 and settled for the Music City Bowl.

Could Penn State have won the Rose Bowl with Levis as its starting quarterback? Perhaps. It’s impossible to say. Would Penn State have reached a higher level— the College Football Playoff— with Levis starting instead of Clifford? Evidence suggests not.

I understand that college production isn’t everything as far as the NFL Draft goes. Upside is important, and Levis, with his 6-foot-3, 230-ish pound build, big arm and running ability, has plenty of it.

But for a college football program, college production is everything, and there’s little, if anything, that indicates Franklin and Co. missed out on much by not making Levis the guy.

I could have written a lot of this article had Levis been a top-five or even a top-three pick. Where he falls doesn’t change what he did and didn’t accomplish in college. If Levis has a great NFL career, my view will still be the same.

But Levis’s free fall made this column much easier to write because it just might show that NFL organizations see what Franklin saw all those years ago.

It could be an indicator that Levis isn’t the superstar some Penn State fans thought he was.

To me, all of this says that important people in the NFL world don’t think Will Levis is all that, and there isn’t much from what he did after leaving Penn State that says they’d be wrong.

So overall, the night one fall of Will Levis should remind Penn State fans that Franklin didn’t make a colossal mistake by making Clifford his guy.

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