Penn State Football

Sean Clifford, the first commit of Penn State’s 2017 recruiting class, eager to get started

Coach Franklin discusses 2016 season's impact on National Signing Day

Penn State Football Coach James Franklin talks about the success Penn State had during the 2016 season and how much of an impact it had on the program's incoming recruiting class.
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Penn State Football Coach James Franklin talks about the success Penn State had during the 2016 season and how much of an impact it had on the program's incoming recruiting class.

It’s been a long time coming for Sean Clifford.

Clifford, a four-star quarterback out of Cincinnati, was the first recruit to verbally commit to Penn State’s 2017 class — and he’s itching to send in his letter of intent on Wednesday’s National Signing Day.

“Being committed for so long and trying to get this class to be where it is today, signing that letter is going to mean a little bit more than just going to play for a team,” Clifford, who verballed in July 2015, said Monday. “It’s been a long, sometimes hard, but really enjoyable journey, so I’m just ready to start my work at Penn State.”

Clifford, a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder signal-caller out of St. Xavier, has seen quite a bit in his time as a Penn State commit. Pledging before the 2015 season, he watched as the Nittany Lion offense floundered under then-offensive coordinator John Donovan; Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times in the season opener against Temple; and by time the season was over, Penn State ranked 98th nationally in points per game (23.2).

Not exactly stuff a highly-touted, incoming quarterback recruit wants to see.

The following offseason, according to 247 Sports, Clifford received offers from North Carolina, Rutgers and Syracuse, adding to the existing offers from Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Northwestern, West Virginia and several other schools.

But when Donovan was relieved of his duties and Joe Moorhead was brought in, Penn State coach James Franklin contacted Clifford immediately to explain the situation.

“He told me why they chose coach Moorhead, and I saw a lot of potential,” Clifford said. “I trusted the process. I loved the school, and everything about Penn State. I trusted coach Franklin, and thank God I did. I didn’t have concerns, but maybe I was a little bit nervous. I was a 17-year-old kid hoping my decision was the right one.”

Judging by the Nittany Lions’ 2016 success, Clifford believes he made the correct choice.

After beginning the campaign unranked with little expectation, Penn State rebounded from a 2-2 start to rattle off an improbable winning streak, capture the Big Ten Championship and reach the Rose Bowl.

As many wavered during the Nittany Lions’ early struggles, Clifford knew all along that kind of prosperity was on the horizon.

“I hate to say it, but it was an, ‘I told ya so,’ to a lot of people that doubted Penn State as a program and where they’d be in the future,” the quarterback said.

Penn State’s offensive transformation, specifically, generated quite a buzz around the country, and for Clifford, it was eye-opening. The Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points per game and, nationally, had the third-most plays of 40 yards or more (30).

Clifford said he’s eager to start picking Moorhead’s brain about the offense, and given his abilities, the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the country, according to 247 Sports, feels he’ll fit in the system.

“When I watched (quarterback) Trace (McSorley) this year, I kind of compare myself to his game — being accurate and being able to make plays at the same time,” Clifford said. “I’ve been categorized as a pocket passer my entire high school career, but this year especially I showed that I have the capability to run. That’s a much-needed skill set in this offense. I can’t wait to get up to Penn State and show off everything that I have.”

It might take some time for Clifford to jump right into the thick of things. Despite wanting to enroll early, the quarterback wasn’t allowed per his high school’s rules.

Plus, he’s dealing with a noteworthy injury. Clifford underwent surgery for a posterior labrum tear in his throwing shoulder in early January, making a 2017 redshirt all the more sensible.

“I think redshirting will be a better idea for me personally,” Clifford said. “I’m going to need to take some time. It’s a long process. I’m working hard and doing everything I can each day to help this team.”

It shouldn’t be hard for Clifford to bolster the Nittany Lions while nursing an injury.

For the past 18 months, he’s been a leader off the field with the 2017 recruiting class — and when he faxes in his letter on Wednesday, he’ll be one step closer to becoming an on-the-field leader for the Nittany Lions.

“When you commit so early, you get to know these guys on a personal level,” Clifford said. “We’re really excited, and I’m proud to be the first commit.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9