Alek Torgersen has something to prove.
This year, it’s not about proving he’s capable of locking down the top spot at quarterback. After a record-setting performance characterized by a strong passing game, the junior has already shown he has what it takes to start in the shotgun. In 2015, it wasn’t even a question who would return as starting quarterback.
No, this year, Torgersen must prove he’s capable of the developing the other offensive weapons in his repertoire. We know he can throw – the Huntington Beach, Calif., native’s 2,689 passing yards in his first year of starting were the third most in a season for any Penn quarterback. The question is if Torgersen can grow as a player and adapt his game to the changing lineup on the field.
“The mark of any program since I’ve been in the league, you live and die by the quarterback play,” coach Ray Priore said.
Thus, quite possibly, the split-second decisions Torgersen makes in the pocket this year could make or break the season for Penn football. That’s a lot of weight on one player’s shoulders.
Despite those heavy expectations, Priore has faith in the 20-something year old conducting his offense.
“Teams that traditionally have been the most successful in the league are those that bring back their starting quarterbacks,” he said.
Put another way, Torgersen feels ready to shoulder the burden, be it the weight or blame or the elation of success, for whatever comes in the 2015 season. Why? It’s simple.
“I have a lot more confidence in myself this year,” Torgersen said. “Going into last year, it was my first time starting. So you come in, you don’t know what to expect, you haven’t thrown in games really.”
Despite that confidence, the makeup of Penn’s starting lineup is fundamentally different this year. Gone are Spencer Kulcsar, Conner Scott and Mitch King, three of the squad’s top receivers last year. Their absence illustrates the beauty of college football; thanks to the natural life cycle of graduation, the playbook must change from year to year to accommodate the shuffling around of the roster.
Granted, sophomore Justin Watson — one of the quarterback’s favorite targets in 2014 — will still be around to lead the receiving core.
“Justin’s a stud. You can’t dispute that,” Torgersen said. “We’ve been working a lot so hopefully this year we can light it up.”
In order to be successful, though, Torgersen knows that he will have to light it up elsewhere on the field as well.
“Throwing like 61 times a game or something like that, that’s just unreal,” he said. At Dartmouth in 2014, the then-sophomore set a school record for pass attempts in a single game with 61. “We need a strong run game. You can’t just throw out the pass.”
That mentality of diversifying the playbook is new for Torgersen. He’s no longer just trying to pick up yards wherever he can, something the coaching staff has noticed since spring practices began.
“He’s learned, I think, in a very short time between spring ball and camp and has been making very good decisions,” said Priore. “He’s learned to be smart with the football.”
Beyond just developing greater intuition in the pocket, Torgersen is learning to master yet another offensive scheme with the start of Priore’s tenure as head coach. 2015 marks the second consecutive season in which Penn has overhauled aspects of its offense — John Reagan was hired as the team’s offensive coordinator in February — after transitioning to a pass-first spread system last year.
“The thing about last year was that our offense was so used to a style, one that was so focused on running and pounding, and we changed that style to something that was very unique,” Priore said. “That takes time. I don’t care what program you’re in, it takes time to evolve.”
With this evolution naturally comes expectations; expectations of fans, of coaches, of rival teams. But the one thing that Torgersen does not feel responsible for proving is that Penn still has what it takes to be a football school that can reign atop the Ivy League.
“Obviously 2-8 isn’t good by anyone’s standards,” Torgersen said of last year’s dismal record. “We don’t have anything to prove to anyone, I don’t feel.”
For the quarterback, this season is more about improvement and less about anything to do with those expectations. “We want to just go out there and get better and that’s what we’ve been trying to do every day,” he said. “This whole camp, spring, everything, we’ve been striving to get to the end goal, which is the season.”
So now we know he belongs as starting quarterback. As the minutes count down to kick off on Sept. 19, it’s just a matter of what Torgersen does when he takes that first snap.
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