At 17, Sean Clifford has already made the biggest decision of his life to date.
That decision — a verbal pledge to Penn State football — was not just hugely impactful for his own future, but will be for the futures of between 15-20 other young athletes, too.
Clifford, the No. 12-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class (according to 247 Sports) and a recent invitee to the Under Armour All-American Game, has now been tasked with being the face and leader of a class that, while yet diminutive in numbers, has added four-star linebacker Dylan Rivers and three-star defensive ends Yetur Matos and Damion Barber to its ranks.
The quarterback, though, was the first to pledge. In the coming year, that will make all the difference.
“My role, obviously, being the first (pledge) and the quarterback, is pretty substantial,” he said via phone from Cincinnati, Ohio, last week where, as the signal-caller for St. Xavier, he threw for 1,547 yards and 11 touchdowns (and ran in five more) in 2015.
“The (Penn State) coaches have pointed that out to me. I think that the biggest thing is just connections and relationships. My relationships with the commits are extremely good and strong, and I have a ton of other good relationships with a lot of other guys, which is really going to help our class develop.”
Lateral — or peer-to-peer — recruiting, for lack of a better phrase, is important in college football today. The early commits in recruiting classes are tasked with reaching out to other athletes across the country to help maintain commitment status across their own class, and even can help convince an athlete on the fence about deciding to join the ranks. It’s a useful tool for coaches themselves, who of course are confined to specific recruiting contact periods.
Trusting a high-schooler to spread a specific message to a large quantity of players does not come without risk for coaches or pressure on the young athlete himself, so it’s all the more important that the member of the class who does so is used to a leadership role and will be expected to continue that role when in college — like a quarterback.
I’m pretty confident in what I can handle.
Sean Clifford, Penn State Class of 2017 quarterback commit
“I think that going to the school that I go to, I think pressure has been a big part and I’ve just learned how to cope with it,” said Clifford. “Ever since playing as a freshman on varsity in front of 25,000 people…You know, it’s kind of a shock to your system and I know what I can handle. I’m pretty confident in what I can handle.”
Examples at Penn State of such work by commits was that of former quarterback Christian Hackenberg and his family, who kept together a core group of recruits including standout defensive end Garrett Sickels and offensive lineman Brendan Mahon when the NCAA sanctions hit the program. Less dramatic and more recent an example is that of 2016 signee Shane Simmons, who, alongside his mother Jen, became well-known for being the go-to face of the class and even branding the group of pledges on social media and creating quite a familial atmosphere within the class.
“I talked to Shane a lot about it,” Clifford said. “Obviously he did a really good job of keeping the 2016 class together, first off, and then adding and making it really great. I talked to him about some things that he did that can help me as a leader.”
Clifford said that Simmons advised him to keep first targets, then commits together in groups. He said that putting a player who had already committed in close capacity to a player that hadn’t is key, or reaching out to friends or family of targets as a fellow player.
That mostly happens via social media.
“Social media is a huge part of it,” said Clifford. “Twitter, iMessage, texting and then even Snap Chat. I talk to guys every week that are from everywhere. Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, places that for me would take hours or even days to drive to, and I can connect to them in a matter of minutes. It’s nice to have that access and really get to know guys even though I can’t see them (in person).”
Despite the simplicity involved in taking a few seconds to reach out to a player online, there is an underlying challenge. Clifford is tasked with forming genuine connections with many players he has yet to meet, and relating to the obvious diversity of personality, culture and even socioeconomic status a class can contain.
“A lot of guys come from a lot of different situations and I obviously don’t know (what it’s like) to be in all of those situations,” he said. “I think that the challenge of that would just be connecting with a lot of different types of guys. ... I think just finding that median. ... I mean, I know we’re all just high school guys. So just getting a good relationship outside of football is really key before you even talk about the school itself.”
Where Clifford doesn’t always have geography on his side, he relies on other class leaders to complement him.
Rivers, Virginia’s No. 9 linebacker prospect, is a bit closer to Penn State’s traditional recruiting radius. He has a role to play too as the second verbal in the class, and his is often a little more physical than Clifford’s.
Rivers said that while in his experience, athletes rarely make their college decisions off the other players in the class (it is, after all, the coaches’ jobs to pull in the verbals, he said), the most important thing pledges like he or Clifford can do is get their names and faces out there to undecided athletes as a point of contact of the class.
“It’s just important for them to feel welcome,” he said. “I usually try and plan my visits where some big recruits are coming. I don’t ever try to get to a visit where I’m gonna be the only one there. .. Just try to get them on the same path as I am, get them to know my face.”
Both Clifford and Rivers will have plenty of opportunity to laterally recruit this Saturday, as they will be in town for Penn State’s annual Blue-White game.