Penn State staff members are logging serious mileage this week at the start of a contact period on the recruiting calendar. Nittany Lions commits and targets have welcomed James Franklin and assistant coaches to their hometowns across America.
These personal meetings routinely require long-distance travel, providing high school prospects with a pretty clear indication of which programs are genuinely invested in their recruitment process. Penn State’s handling of quarterbacks Michael Johnson Jr. and Taquan Roberson is a primary example.
Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne was in New Jersey last Sunday — the first day of permitted off-campus contact — to spend time with Roberson, a DePaul Catholic (Wayne, N.J.) High School standout who verbally pledged to Penn State in October 2017. The first offensive commitment of the Nittany Lions’ 2019 class, he told Lions247Sports that Franklin is also scheduled to visit next Sunday.
Rahne is slated to be in the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday. That’s where he’ll meet with Johnson, a Sheldon (Eugene, Ore.) High School senior who shared that plan with Lions247.
Johnson joined the class on Aug. 1 after seriously considering options at Florida State, Miami, North Carolina State and Oregon State. He traveled to Happy Valley for the first and only time in June, using an official visit during a weekend in which several Penn State commits were on campus.
“The atmosphere was fantastic,” Johnson told 247Sports’ Steve Wiltfong afterward. “The vibe from the staff was incredible. The highlights for me were seeing the stadium and visualizing myself making an impact there. I also love Coach Franklin’s mindset and the offense that Coach Rahne runs.”
Next fall, for the first time since 2015, Penn State will enter a season without Trace McSorley as its starting quarterback. The positional room should return three scholarship quarterbacks in 2019: redshirt senior Tommy Stevens, redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and redshirt freshman Will Levis.
The group adds a pair of passers in January, when Johnson and Roberson arrive on campus. Both players will fulfill long-term early enrollment plans and participate in the winter conditioning program, gain acclimation in the class room, and compete for reps in spring camp.
Johnson didn’t shy away from a two-quarterback class during his search for an ideal collegiate landing spot.
“Everyone always talks about it like a negative, saying if you bring in two quarterbacks one guy is going to transfer,” Johnson said in June. “But either way, whether or not you have another quarterback in your class, there is going to be competition. When Trace McSorley leaves, there is going be a competition there. You have to be ready to compete no matter where you go. It doesn’t matter to me that they’re taking two quarterbacks.”
Roberson wasn’t surprised by the addition of a second quarterback.
“I know that there might be another quarterback in the class but I’m not afraid of any competition. I like the competition,” Roberson said one week before Johnson committed. “At the end of the day, it’s going to make both of us better. I’m looking forward to it.”
In-person visits this week provide another glimpse at how Penn State has made sure both players understand their value to the program. Rahne traveled to Oregon for a Sheldon game during the Nittany Lions’ bye week in early October, while Franklin was at DePaul Catholic that same weekend.
“It means a lot that the coach is taking time out of his day to see me play, and see what I can do. I really appreciate that,” Roberson told 247Sports’ Brian Dohn after throwing for 337 yards and five touchdowns in front of Franklin.
Roberson, a 6-foot, 185-pound prospect considered the No. 9 dual threat quarterback in 247Sports 2019 composite rankings, completed 56 percent of pass attempts for 2,432 yards and 29 touchdowns this season, according to MaxPreps. He added 314 yards and three scores as a runner, tossing six interceptions in 10 contests (video highlights above article).
Roberson helped lead DePaul Catholic to a state championship in 2017. This fall, that pursuit ended with a five-point loss in the Non-Public Group 3 semifinals.
During his two campaigns as an upperclassman starter, Roberson collected 5,785 total yards and 66 touchdowns.
Johnson, who approaches 6-3, 195 pounds, is a scintillating athlete who runs a verified sub-4.6 40-yard dash (highlights below).
Johnson still has one more matchup remaining in his high school career — a Saturday showdown vs. Lake Oswego in Oregon’s 6A title game. He totaled 196 yards and two touchdowns in a semifinal matchup, per MaxPreps, before exiting early with an unspecified medical issue.
“The Irish hope to have Johnson back for the championship game,” wrote The Oregonian’s Rene Ferran. “Coach Josh Line was tight-lipped about the injury, saying only that the medical staff made the determination to hold Johnson out after he was hurt on a two-yard run on Sheldon’s first drive of the second half.”
Sheldon managed to prevail in his absence but it remains to be seen whether he’ll return to action for the championship clash.
Through 11 games as a senior, Johnson has completed 58 percent of pass attempts for 1,707 yards and 19 touchdowns, tossing three interceptions along the way. He’s surpassed 100 rushing yards in six games, gaining 1,177 yards (8.2 per carry) and scoring 16 times on the ground.
His father — Oregon Ducks assistant Michael Johnson Sr. — has carved out an impressive coaching career that’s led the family to residences in Atlanta, Baltimore, San Diego and Northern California. Soon, football ambitions will again lead to Johnson Jr. to relocation, as he prepares to pursue his athletic and academic goals across the country.
Since 2017, Johnson has thrown for 2,925 yards, rushed for 1,922 yards and accounted for 68 touchdowns.
It shouldn’t be necessary for Johnson or Roberson to see action in 2019, though NCAA rules now allow either to participate in four games before burning redshirt status. Levis, the current true freshman QB, did not take a game snap during the regular season but did serve a key role by providing quality scout-team reps.
Stevens, who carries one remaining season of eligibility, is the perceived heir apparent to McSorley. Still, don’t expect anyone, especially Clifford, to relinquish that role without providing competition. Johnson and Roberson will soon join the fray.