If the season started tomorrow, redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Clifford would be a twisted Trace McSorley ankle away from starting under center.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, opening kickoff is still more than a week away on Sept 1. And, although backup QB Tommy Stevens showed up to practice again Tuesday on crutches and in a walking boot, his injury isn’t believed to be serious.
Still, this is the second time since the spring that Stevens has suffered an injury. And Clifford, who was initially projected to be the No. 3 QB, has become less of an afterthought and more of a curiosity as a result.
So here’s what you should know about Clifford, the signal-caller who’s currently taking reps with the second team:
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Coaches and players are high on him
When Stevens initially went down in the spring, James Franklin said it could wind up being a “blessing in disguise.” Stevens focused on what he could — mostly the mental aspects of the game — while Clifford got to see a lot more reps.
That experience has helped translate into some solid progress for Clifford the last few months.
“I think he’s had a really good offseason,” Franklin said after practice Tuesday night. “I like where we’re at right now.”
During the limited portions of practice open to the media, Clifford has flashed a strong arm and good pocket presence. His mobility has improved, per Franklin, and he’s added six pounds in Happy Valley while decreasing his body fat.
At times, Franklin has referred to him as conscientious, a good note-taker, a player who asks good questions and is more athletic than people think. McSorley seconded most all of that during the spring.
“That’s the exciting thing about him is he’s hardworking, he’s diligent and he wants to be successful so bad that it drives everyone else to be successful and do everything they can around him,” McSorley said in the spring.
Said running back Miles Sanders, on Tuesday: “He’s mobile just like Trace. He knows the offense, too.”
He’s very competitive
In the spring, Franklin offered one anecdote that stuck with him for quite some time.
At one point, “months” before April, Clifford missed a lifting session and was so upset that he punched the bench — and broke his hand. Franklin very rarely discusses injuries, but he felt that encapsulated his quarterback pretty well: Clifford can’t stand missing an opportunity to get better.
“Obviously, that’s not what we want our quarterback to do,” Franklin said back in early April. “It was a great teaching moment. But he’s a very, very, fiery competitor. In the morning workouts, he’s always matched up with Trace, and he competes really well with Trace.”
Franklin doubled down on his “extremely competitive” label Tuesday. He said Clifford reminds him a lot about how Stevens operated three years ago.
“He believes in himself so much that, say we’re doing a situation like a two-minute drill,” Franklin said. “He believes in his athletic ability and his pocket movement that he thinks he can extend the play in two minutes. That’s not necessarily the right scenario (to do that), and that’s the same deal three years ago with Tommy. And now Tommy’s sitting back there, saying, ‘I get it. I get it now.’ (Clifford) is extremely competitive.”
He takes being a leader very seriously
At his prestigious high school, St. Xavier in Cincinnati, he was a two-time team captain.
That may not sound like a big deal — plenty of Nittany Lions are two-time high school captains — but St. Xavier’s history goes back to at least 1937, when it won its first league title, and has featured players such as NFL Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly. Despite all that, Clifford was the first-ever player there to be a captain for more than one season.
He was also Penn State’s first commit in the Class of 2017, pledging in the summer of 2015, when the Nittany Lions had gone six years without being ranked. He felt it was important to be the very first commit — so he could take the lead with the recruiting class.
“I always wanted to commit early and be that leader in that class,” he told the CDT last summer. “I think the quarterback, the No. 1 trait is leadership because if you can’t lead the team, you can’t lead them to a win. And that’s what matters. So leadership has been ingrained in my brain, so being able to meet every single guy that comes in has been a big factor for me.”
Scouts loved him coming out of high school
ESPN ranked him as the nation’s third-best pocket-passer and as a top-100 overall recruit. Rivals put him as the No. 8 pro-style signal-caller in the country and as a top-175 overall prospect. And 247 Sports rated him as the 11th-best pro-style QB.
Not only did he earn the title of “most accurate” at an Elite 11 competition, but ESPN’s scouts virtually drooled over his potential. They referred to him as “innately accurate,” “more than capable of fitting the ball into tight spots” and as an athlete “with very good foot speed” who has a “high ceiling.”
“The more you watch Clifford, the more you get an appreciation for the vast array of throws he can make which you do not see much of at the high school level,” ESPN wrote. “Has a knack for timing and knows the offense and where to go with the ball. We think this kid should be more of a national recruit than he is at this time.”
He was a three-year starter at St. Xavier and, as a senior, guided it to a double-overtime win in the state championship game.
He came here to win a national title — and he’s not afraid to say it
If all goes according to plan, Clifford will be the starting quarterback in 2020.
That assumes quite a bit. But we’re not making assumptions about Clifford’s ultimate goal. He told us what it was last summer.
“In high school, I wanted a ring on my finger,” he said. “And nothing’s changing in college: I want a ring on my finger, and I want to see Penn State football back on the map.”