Penn State Football

Why 'a blessing in disguise' is helping a Penn State quarterback this spring

Sean Clifford, Jake Zembiec and Michael Shuster are getting most of the work at quarterback. And it's clear who is benefiting the most.
Sean Clifford, Jake Zembiec and Michael Shuster are getting most of the work at quarterback. And it's clear who is benefiting the most. adrey@centredaily.com

Sean Clifford — the spirited redshirt freshman waiting behind star Trace McSorley and buzz-worthy backup Tommy Stevens — broke his hand this offseason. No, he didn't get into a brawl in the Lasch Building or lose a heartbreaking game of Fortnite.

Clifford simply didn't live up to his own expectations.

"He missed a weight (lifting goal) one day and punched the bench and broke his hand," Penn State coach James Franklin said with a bit of a smile after Wednesday's practice at Holuba Hall. "That's not what we want our quarterback to do, and it was a good teaching moment. But he's a very, very fiery competitor."

Thankfully for Clifford, his hand is all healed up. The "highly, highly competitive" quarterback is getting a lot of run this spring — something that will help him significantly down the line.

McSorley — already one of the program's most prolific passers of all-time — doesn't need too many reps. Approaching his third season as Penn State's starter, the fifth-year senior has worked through enough spring practices to get the gist.

Stevens, on the other hand, could use the snaps. Only problem is, the transfer candidate who decided to stay has a walking boot on his right foot and is sidelined for the foreseeable future.

But Franklin said Stevens' injury might be "a blessing in disguise." It leaves Clifford, Jake Zembiec and Michael Shuster getting most of the work at quarterback. And it's clear who is benefiting the most.

"It's been really good for Clifford," Franklin said. "He's making some mistakes, he's learning from it, he's very conscientious, he's asking great questions, and he takes a lot of good notes."

McSorley, the man mentoring Clifford through March and April, sees the wheels turning in the freshman's head.

"What you love about him is his competitiveness and how much he wants to be successful. That's the exciting thing about him," the senior said. "He's hard-working, and he's diligent. He wants to be successful so bad. It drives everyone else to be successful and do everything they can around him."

While currently on display, Clifford's drive is nothing new.

A leader of Penn State's 2017 recruiting class, the Cincinnati product has always been someone teammates admired. As a senior, Clifford accounted for 21 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards and led St. Xavier High School to a double-overtime win in the Division I Ohio State Championship.

It will likely be a while before Clifford breaks out the heroics for Penn State. When McSorley leaves after this season, Stevens should step into the starting role in 2019.

But in the meantime, Clifford keeps pushing, keeps improving.

That's all the fiery competitor knows how to do — and it's going to pay dividends when his time ultimately comes.

"Clifford's the guy who's got the biggest opportunity right now," Franklin said. "I think where you're going to see it really pay off is not really now. He's learning now. He'll learn even more going through these cut-ups between now and the start of camp. And I think he'll really see growth between now and camp.

"That's when it'll start to pay off for him and us."

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