Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead speaks during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency-Birmingham. Photo by: Vasha Hunt/USA TODAY Sports
July 17, 2019 4:59:55 PM
HOOVER, Ala. -- Joe Moorhead was ready for the question.
Any college football coach that has an open quarterback competition knows it's coming.
And, as expected, the Mississippi State leader declined to pick a starting quarterback between junior Keytaon Thompson and Penn State graduate transfer Tommy Stevens.
But for a team that allegedly doesn't have a presumed starter entering fall camp, there sure was a lot of chatter with Moorhead regarding Stevens on Wednesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover. Thompson, not so much.
Now, let's be fair: a flashy new transfer quarterback is always going to generate more curiosity than the incumbent.
Nonetheless, Moorhead had a chance to give a generic, coachspeak answer when first asked about the quarterback competition. The question was posed to the second-year MSU coach without mentioning either field general by name. There was one already on the top of his mind.
"The big thing with Tommy is getting him assimilated with his teammates. It sounds like he's doing a really nice job at workouts, players are doing seven-on-seven stuff on their own," Moorhead said. "I just want to get him around the guys and get him comfortable with Starkville."
It took Moorhead three full sentences talking about how important it is to get Stevens up to speed before mentioning the quarterback competition will be full speed ahead when fall camp opens.
Curious. It's almost like he was trying to drop a hint without openly naming a starter.
Before going any further, common sense makes one ask why Stevens would leave Penn State, a school where he'd still compete for the starting quarterback job, with one year of eligibility remaining if there wasn't some assurance he'd be the man in Starkville.
In Moorhead's defense, it's probably not a great precedent to publicly announce a player as a starting quarterback that has yet to participate in an official team practice. So, we're probably going to have to go through this song and dance with Joe a couple more times. You'll be just as sick of reading about it as we will be writing it.
But closed-door promises that may or may not have been made aside, let's look at the bigger picture.
It's probably not a good sign for Thompson MSU was so intent on adding a graduate quarterback in the first place. Moorhead pointed out that prior to Stevens becoming available in the transfer portal, State went after another graduate transfer quarterback and failed in its pursuit. Considering past reports, it's likely he was referring to former Clemson signal caller Kelly Bryant, who eventually transferred to Missouri.
Of course, Moorhead eventually pivoted to Stevens in the spring and the match seemed obvious considering the pair spent two years together at Penn State.
Moorhead said MSU didn't necessarily feel obligated to add a quarterback, but he wanted to improve the talent of his offensive personnel. That doesn't seem like a vote of confidence in Thompson to me.
From an on-field standpoint, both players have a limited sample size in their collegiate careers.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Stevens played 20 games in three years for Penn State and only threw 41 passes. Yet, he completed 58.5 percent of them and threw four touchdowns to one interception, while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, in 16 games over two seasons, Thompson has completed just 46.6 percent of his 105 attempted passes, but has averaged 8.1 yards per attempt. Last season, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound signal caller only completed 18 of 39 passes, but a third of the completions resulted in touchdowns.
Both athletes are decent runners, as Stevens averages a career 6.7 yards per carry on 76 attempts, with Thompson tallying 6.8 yards per carry on 99 rushes.
Because they're essentially the same in the running game, Moorhead said the better passer is going to win the competition. That seems to favor Stevens.
"The thing that I'm looking for in the competition is the guy that throws the ball the best with the best accuracy," Moorhead said. "The area we're looking to improve the most offensively is the explosiveness and effectiveness of our passing game. We have to find a guy that can make tight window throws and make good decisions."
While he was reluctant to commit to a set timeframe, Moorhead said he'd like to determine his signal caller at least 10 days before MSU's season opener on August 31.
"Ideally, (we'd like to name a starter) as soon as possible," Moorhead said. "There's a Wednesday scrimmage we have that's 10 days out from the first game. We'd like to have it by the end of that scrimmage because we'll start opponent prep the next day ... When it becomes obvious to me that someone stepped up and won the job, we'll name it, but I don't want to put a hard date on it."
If State is indeed going to roll with Stevens in the season opener against Louisiana, it's unclear what player the Bulldogs are getting.
He's made a favorable impression with his teammates in his limited time in town, though.
Stevens' new roommate, MSU senior tight end Farrod Green, lit up the first time he caught a pass from his roomie. He couldn't believe the arm strength Stevens was displaying.
"I was like, 'This kid can go,' " Green said.
Meanwhile MSU center Darryl Williams says he checks in with Stevens frequently to ensure the pair are prepared when fall camp starts.
"It's very impressive how well he knows the system," Williams said. "He was with coach Moorhead at Penn State, so I feel he knows the system pretty well."
There was some buzz in the Twitter world generated by NFL Draft Analyst Jim Nagy, who called Stevens the biggest surprise of the 40 quarterbacks invited to the Manning Passing Academy.
"Scouts talk about how guys spin it and Stevens spun it as well as anyone at the camp," Nagy tweeted on July 1. "We knew he was big and athletic but he has a live arm."
It's probably not a coincidence Stevens was primarily the talk of MSU's portion of SEC Media Days. He's very likely going to be under center for the majority of the 2019 campaign, unless Moorhead has been trolling us all.
Guess we'll find out in a month.
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