Sean Clifford’s body was slammed to the turf repeatedly on Dec. 3, 2016. Sacked a title-game record nine times, the St. Xavier star was forced to leave the Ohio Division I state championship game at Ohio Stadium twice due to injury.
“He was beaten senselessly play after play,” said Steve Specht, Clifford’s coach at St. Xavier. “And he kept getting back up, and he kept swinging. And he led us to a state championship. It was one of the most impressive things I had ever seen.”
Three years later, Clifford might find himself taking snaps at The Horseshoe yet again. Only this time it’d be against the Buckeyes, not St. Ignatius.
The Trace McSorley era at Penn State came to a close in the Citrus Bowl. The Nittany Lions are now tasked with identifying a new QB 1 — and Clifford will be in the thick of the offseason competition.
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Tommy Stevens ought to be considered the front-runner to replace McSorley. The rising fifth-year senior competed with McSorley for Christian Hackenberg’s vacated spot in 2016, dutifully served as Penn State’s “Lion” while No. 9 ran the show and returned to Happy Valley instead of transferring last offseason. Franklin has said time and time again that he’s a loyal person, and with Stevens reciprocating that loyalty to the program, he’ll get the first crack, as long as he’s healthy.
But with Clifford on his tail, Stevens won’t have it easy this spring.
“He’s a competitive sucker, man,” Specht said of his former quarterback. “He competes. He fights. I think Sean would try just as hard to beat you at checkers as he will try to beat Michigan and Ohio State. That’s just his drive. That’s what I always saw.”
Penn State players and coaches have seen the same over the last two years. Clifford, a former four-star prospect, was the leader of the Nittany Lions’ 2017 recruiting class. He redshirted last season, but his attitude impressed in the offseason. Back in April, Franklin called Clifford “a fiery, fiery competitor” and told a story about how the quarterback punched a bench and broke his hand in winter workouts after not hitting a certain weight goal.
Clifford’s hand was OK for spring ball and clearly good for the 2018 campaign. While Stevens nursed a leg injury and missed the first four games of the season, Clifford became a garbage-time legend. The third-stringer completed 5 of 5 attempts for 195 yards and two touchdowns in three brief appearances. His lone throw at Pitt was a 34-yard dime to Brandon Polk, and his 95-yard catch-and-run connection with Daniel George against Kent State set a program record.
Clifford’s 559.6 passer rating took a hit in Orlando. With Stevens recovering from surgery and McSorley tending to a poked eye, the redshirt freshman filled in for one play in the first half of the Citrus Bowl and, naturally, went deep. DeAndre Thompkins couldn’t catch the on-the-money 47-yard pass.
While Clifford’s perfect completion percentage disappeared against Kentucky, what emerged from the three-point loss was a confirmation of confidence from the Penn State staff. In a 10-7 game, Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne trusted Clifford. And even though Thompkins couldn’t, Clifford delivered.
“It hasn’t been hard to see the progression he’s made,” Rahne said days leading up to the Citrus Bowl. “If you look at the end of spring to now, he’s grown probably tenfold. It’s been great to watch what he’s done.”
Specht isn’t surprised.
The three-time state champion and 2012 recipient of the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award has coached at St. Xavier since 2004. Six players from the Ohio powerhouse have made it to the NFL, including six-time Pro-Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. But Specht never had a two-time captain. Not until Clifford.
“That’s the one thing that coaches don’t vote on. The kids vote on who they want to lead them,” Specht said. “Sean was different. Sean had a presence that commanded respect from his teammates. ... He was a born leader.”
He was a statsheet filler, too. Clifford, a three-year starter at St. Xavier, threw for 4,004 career yards and 40 touchdowns while setting a school record for career rushing yards (1,110) and rushing touchdowns (20) by a quarterback. That production made Clifford ESPN’s No. 80 overall recruit and No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class. He held offers from 17 schools, including Auburn, Michigan State and West Virginia, but chose Rahne, Joe Moorhead and the Nittany Lions.
Now, Clifford is primed to push Stevens for the No. 1 job. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll have to hold off Michael Johnson Jr., Ta’Quan Roberson and Will Levis in 2020.
But that’s not going to faze Clifford. Specht said the gutty gunslinger “isn’t going to shy away from competition.”
And the guy he’s trying to replace echoed a similar sentiment.
“He’s always going to be ready. He’s always going to be prepared,” McSorley said of Clifford after the Citrus Bowl. “I’m excited to see what his career is going to look like because he’s got everything that you need in a quarterback to be successful. ... Whether it’s next year or two years or three years from now, whenever his time is, he’s going to be ready.”