There will be no Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium this year, as all spring football practices and on-campus activities have been cancelled by the spread of the coronavirus. But coaches have been busy evaluating tape and putting together plans for the fall, hoping there will be better news on the health front and, in turn, a football season to play.

Leading up to what would have been the annual spring scrimmage on April 18, we’ll be breaking down the Penn State spring roster positions by position, as we would have under normal circumstances. It will be more a look at the roster as a whole than it is a judgement of how spring practice unfolded, of course. But with several key positions open and Penn State hoping to put itself in a championship race when college football does kick off, the staff’s evaluation of those position must go on. So does our’s.

Today, we take an in-depth look at the quarterbacks.

The players




Will Levis


Ta’Quan Roberson


Michael Johnson Jr.


Sean Clifford


Returning starters: 1 (Clifford)
Key losses: None
Early enrollees: None

The key fact: On the eye test, 2019 would probably get characterized as an up-and-down season for Nittany Lions quarterbacks. The numbers say they were actually among the best in the Big Ten.

Starter Sean Clifford and backup Will Levis combined to build a 142.9 passer rating and rush for 615 yards last season. That helped Penn State rank in the top five in the Big Ten in both categories. Only two other teams — Ohio State and Indiana — managed to crack the top five in both categories.

In fact, Penn State quarterbacks finished behind only Nebraska in total rushing yards from the quarterback position.

The steadying force

For Penn State, perhaps the lone good thing about not having a spring practice is that, at least, it doesn’t have to break in a starting quarterback.

Look, the 2019 regular season didn’t end the way Sean Clifford wanted it to conclude. He ran the ball a ton, successfully. But it wore him down, and by the time November rolled around, he simply didn’t always look like a healthy player. He was so-so in the first loss of the year at Minnesota, then limped through a loss at Ohio State before giving way to Will Levis to essentially finish up the last six quarters.

He has to stay healthy if and when the 2020 season gets under way, and in doing so, he’ll also need to be a more accurate thrower, especially when it comes to the deep ball. But there was plenty to build on in a sophomore season that saw Clifford throw for 23 touchdowns and account for more than 3,000 yards of total offense.

The biggest spring question

How big a factor will the quarterbacks be in the running game? This actually might be the most intriguing question surrounding any offense in the Big Ten East Division heading into the season.

Kirk Ciarrocca

Penn State hired Kirk Ciarrocca as its offensive coordinator in December after his standout run with Minnesota.

We’ve established that, as far as rushing yards are concerned, Nebraska and Penn State quarterbacks sat firmly at 1 and 2 atop the Big Ten rankings.

Care to guess who finished dead last? You might be surprised to learn it was Minnesota, which accounted for a grand total of…negative-57 yards on the ground from the quarterback position in 2019.

That’s a pretty big deal for Penn State, considering the man who ran Minnesota’s offense the last few seasons will be running the Nittany Lions’ offense next season. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca has reiterated several times since being hired to replace Ricky Rahne in December that Penn State’s offense and the one he ran last year are similar in many ways. But there’s a big difference when it comes to asking the quarterback to be a major part of the running game. Last season, Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan had just 61 carries — 55 less than Clifford and only 10 more than the Penn State backup, Will Levis.

Another key difference: Running the ball as often as he did may have had a negative impact on Clifford’s ability to stay as healthy as he needed to be come November. Morgan went on to earn second-team all-Big Ten honors, set several Minnesota passing records and, not coincidentally, remain relatively healthy.

So that’s a big question Ciarrocca has to answer: Is there a happy medium between running too much and running too little?

“We’d be crazy not to run our quarterbacks,” he said. “That’s one of the things that they do really well, and one of their strengths is their athleticism. So we’re going to continue to do that. I just think that you have to be prudent with it. How many times are you asking him to run between the tackles, that type of stuff, in a game? It’ll be from game to game, depending on who we’re playing and what we need to do to give us the best chance to win the game. It’s really that simple, but I do understand that every time I ask him to run the ball, I’ve increased his opportunity or risk of an injury, that’s for sure.”

The potential star

There are only four quarterbacks on the spring roster, which for all intents and purposes means they are the only four who have a chance to play in the fall (true freshman Micah Bowens will report, if the team can report, in the summer).

Penn State gave very little indication which of the two true freshmen it brought in with the 2019 recruiting class — Michael Johnson Jr. and Ta”Quan Roberson — had a leg up on the other in the “quarterback of the future” race. Roberson did get to throw a pass in the regular-season finale against Rutgers, and he was named co-player of the year on the scout team. But they practically split road trips, and there were as many positives about Johnson from the staff as there was Roberson.

They’ll start on equal footing with Ciarrocca once football resumes. But this will be a big season for both.

“Our time has really been spent in the classroom, so I’ve got a feel for them as people, how they learn,” he said. “They’re very intelligent guys and they’ve been well-trained. I’m looking forward to continue to work with them, but I’m anxious to get on the field with them and watch them throw and watch them process stuff in real time.”

Who hurts the most with no spring?

Will Levis

Penn State backup quarterback Will Levis finished strong for the Nittany Lions in 2019.

Let’s face it: Levis showed some good things in the second half against Ohio State, then again against Rutgers in the regular-season finale. In those six quarters, he rushed for 142 yards on 32 carries. His passing numbers — 14 for 35, 138 yards, one touchdown and two picks — were decent, if not spectacular, but it’s probably fair to say he’d have gone into spring camp with momentum.

Would that have put him in position to unseat Clifford with a strong spring and better summer? Maybe. Coaches always talk about there being a perpetual quarterback competition, after all. But the guess here is that spring would have been an extended opportunity for Ciarrocca to determine how he could have mixed both Clifford and Levis into a gameplan as far as the running game is concerned.

This was probably Clifford’s job anyway. He did start the Cotton Bowl, and while his passing numbers were so-so — the fact that the Nittany Lions rushed for 396 yards was a contributing factor, too — Clifford played from start to finish.

Projected depth chart

First team

Second team

Third team


Sean Clifford

Will Levis

Ta’Quan Roberson

This is pretty straightforward, especially considering there was no practice to hold even a cursory competition for the starting spot. Penn State has a lot invested in Clifford, and it was going to take a fairly convincing performance this spring by Levis to overtake him anyway. The real battle here is for the third-team spot, but don’t bet against Johnson pushing there.

Experience at quarterback is going to be important whenever next season starts. Maybe, more important than ever. And Penn State has that with Clifford.