PSU spring practice proved to Clifford ‘I can play here’
Tommy Stevens is out, and Sean Clifford is in.
Stevens — Trace McSorley’s longtime backup and for years the record-holder’s presumed successor — is in the transfer portal and will leave Penn State. Stevens’ father informed the CDT late Thursday afternoon that No. 2’s time in Happy Valley is over.
Now, it’s time for the Clifford era.
Sure, Will Levis has impressed as Penn State’s second-string option this spring, but he’s firmly behind Clifford on the depth chart. Four-star 2019 signees Ta’Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson have potential, but won’t be ready to lead the Nittany Lions this fall. Instead of competing with Stevens for the starting gig in the fall, the first-team role ought to be Clifford’s barring injury.
So what is Penn State getting in Clifford? Let’s break down what the redshirt sophomore has to offer.
Clifford didn’t win three state titles like McSorley did. But the St. Xavier star did make history at the Cincinnati program.
Clifford was a three-year starter and the first two-time captain under longtime head coach Steve Specht. Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly didn’t achieve that recognition at St. Xavier. Neither did former Boston College standout Alex Albright.
“Sean was different. Sean had a presence that commanded respect from his teammates. ... Sean was a born leader,” Specht told the CDT in January. “His ability to adapt to situations, his ability to deal with adversity, his ability to stay even-keeled through the good times and the bad, other kids see that. Other players see that.”
It helped, too, that Clifford was usually the best player on the field. The 6-foot-2 signal-caller finished fourth on the all-time St. Xavier passing charts (4,004 yards). He also broke the school record for rushing yards (1,110) and rushing touchdowns (20) for a quarterback — something to keep in mind after Franklin complimented Clifford’s growth as a dual-threat option last week.
Outside of guiding St. Xavier to three consecutive Greater Catholic League South titles and winning the Ohio state title in 2016, Clifford impressed on the recruiting scene, too. The four-star prospect was a 2016 Elite 11 finalist and was named the competition’s most accurate passer. For reference, former first-round picks Jared Goff and Josh Rosen were the Elite 11’s most accurate passers in 2012 and 2015, respectively.
That’s not to indicate Clifford will go that high in a couple years. But he came to Penn State in 2016 as one of the top quarterback prospects in the country. Franklin saw that, too.
“That guy is a winner,” Franklin said of Clifford on Feb. 1, 2017. Sound familiar?
Specht called Clifford “even-keeled” when faced with pressure. But, as Franklin once described him, the quarterback is “fiery.”
“He’s highly, highly competitive. Almost to the point where, when he first got here, that he was hard to coach,” Franklin said last week.
Clifford actually said prior to the Blue-White Game that Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne have had to pull him aside and tell him to chill out “a few times.” That revelation came six months after Franklin told the story of Clifford punching a weight room bench and breaking his hand in 2018 winter workouts.
Clifford insists that he has “learned how to hone” his competitive nature. “In high school, I could just let it out and nothing would really happen. But I know that college is a lot different,” Clifford said in September. “I’ve got to keep a level head all the time.”
Still, Clifford’s spirited approach won’t go away completely. The quarterback said last week that when he arrived on campus, he realized one of Penn State’s “core values” is compete. Clifford knew then that’s what he would pride himself on.
“You can ask anybody on the team, and they’d say that I’m one of the most competitive guys on the team. And I’d tell you that I’m the most competitive guy on this team. Because I am,” Clifford said with a smile. “But you’ve got to back it up.”
Clifford hasn’t proven much in his time at Penn State. But what he has shown is the ability to throw it deep.
Clifford completed 5 of 7 passing attempts last year. One of those was a 95-yard touchdown pass to Daniel George; it was an easy 30-yard throw by Clifford to a wide-open George, but his pump-fake froze Kent State’s defensive back and set up Penn State’s longest-ever play from scrimmage. Clifford also connected with Brandon Polk for a 34-yard score at Pitt and found Mac Hippenhammer for a 44-yard gain at Illinois. The up-and-comer would have had a 50-yarder in the Citrus Bowl, too, if not for a DeAndre Thompkins drop.
For what it’s worth, Clifford looked good pushing the ball downfield in the Blue-White Game, as well. He hooked up with tight end Nick Bowers for a 35-yard gain and would have had a 20-yard connection with KJ Hamler if not for a drop.
If Clifford can consistently stretch the defense — and if his receivers can hold onto the ball — Penn State’s offense will be better off for it. The Nittany Lions struggled last year, Rahne’s first as playcaller, managing only 28.4 points per game in conference play. That number is inflated, too, by the 63 points they hung on lowly Illinois in September.
A primary reason why Penn State struggled when it mattered most — 50 points combined against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — was the lack of an aerial attack. In conference play, Penn State tallied only 11 passing plays of 30 yards or more, tied for 73rd nationally. In 2016, when McSorley and the Nittany Lions rattled off a Big Ten title run, they were tied with Oklahoma State for third-most passes of 30 yards or more in conference play (28).
Of course, it helped having jump-ball machine Chris Godwin in 2016. But if the Nittany Lions can rekindle that downfield magic through Clifford — utilizing Hamler, Justin Shorter, Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth to their full potential — Penn State’s offense can look like the juggernaut it did two years ago.