When redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Clifford first arrived on campus, he didn’t wow teammates with his accuracy and decision-making. He threw interceptions; he misread coverages.
But something else impressed his teammates.
During Clifford’s first few 7-on-7s that rookie year, wideout DeAndre Thompkins watched him closely between each drill. Sure, he looked like a freshman. And, sure, he was far from perfect. But the signal-caller followed Trace McSorley around the practice facility like a chick to its mother. He asked questions, received advice from backup Tommy Stevens and tried his best to digest the offense. “You can kind of tell and see his drive, trying to be a perfectionist, trying to make sure he makes the right reads at the right time,” Thompkins said. “Also, it’s his competitive nature in workouts — trying to win everything. I could kind of tell he’s someone that was going to be special.”
Outsiders know now what Thompkins knew a year ago. Clifford has thrown only four passes this season, but that was enough of a glimpse to excite fans about the future. He completed all four of those throws, for 151 yards and two touchdowns — breaking Penn State’s 99-year-old record for longest pass along the way, on a 95-yard toss to Daniel George.
Clifford currently has a passer rating of 582.1. It might be the most impressive four-pass start to any quarterback in Penn State’s 131-year history.
“That was cool and all,” Clifford said, “but I just keep doing what I need to do.”
For Clifford, it’s important not to get too far ahead of himself. He has played in just two games, after all. But he’s not about to take a step back, either.
After nursing a leg injury for about a month, Stevens is finally expected to supplant Clifford and return to his No. 2 role this weekend. That means Clifford’s limited time could become even more limited, his reps with the second-team also giving way to the redshirt junior.
But Clifford’s mind-set remains the same.
“It really doesn’t change anything,” he said. “Reps will be dished out different but, from a preparation perspective, there’s no change. ... Like I said in the summer, I treat every single day like I’m the starting quarterback at Penn State.”
His teammates like what they saw over that summer. Clifford can’t lose at anything so, during workouts that involved running over a steep hill, he sprinted past running back Mark Allen — an unusual sight against a back known for his work ethic. “Kind of ridiculous,” Allen said with a laugh. In another oft-repeated story last fall, Clifford missed a hurdles exercise one day — James Franklin initially told the story by saying it was a weightlifting session — and the quarterback was so upset by his tardiness he punched a weight bench and broke his hand.
“We thought it was a little odd at first, but that’s just Sean,” offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez acknowledged. “That’s the way he is. He’s pretty competitive about things like that. We’ve come to respect that about him.”
Ask about Clifford, and teammates usually offer two phrases: Competitive and unparalleled work ethic. Maybe even a dash of eccentricity, in a good way. Said Clifford, about getting into the flow of the game: “Getting hit was definitely a great experience, and I’m glad I had that opportunity.”
Clifford, an Ohioan, committed before Franklin started his second season, back when Franklin’s job security wasn’t a given and the Nittany Lions were still unranked. But it was important to him to help build up the recruiting class, to take on the role of leader then so it was easier several years down the road.
For now, it’ll likely be difficult to move back to No. 3 on the depth chart. But, if those four passes showed anything to the fans who stayed put in the fourth quarter, it’s that Clifford is on the right path.
His teammates just happened to know that four passes ago.