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Penn State Football: Number Called, Clifford Ready To Step Up

by on June 17, 2019 1:50 PM

Sean Clifford had to turn his phone off. There were so many messages flashing across the screen that it was pointless to even try to use it.

“This is the most important thing right now,” he said to himself, maybe out loud, maybe just in his head.

And into the meeting room he went, his teammates looking at him and then back at their phones. Everyone was digesting the news Clifford had only just learned in James Franklin’s office a few minutes earlier: quarterback Tommy Stevens was leaving the program for good, soon to be off to Mississippi State.

Clifford had a simple impromptu message for all of them that day.

“We’re going to be alright.”

For the Penn State football program the news of Stevens’ departure was potentially a season-defining one. The Nittany Lions had set out in advance of the 2019 campaign hopeful that the Indiana native would return to health, and with a final season of eligibility remaining, be able to lean on his experience, transitioning from the Trace McSorley era into 2020 and beyond.

In reality, while Stevens possessed more playing experience and several more years within the program than Clifford, the presence of a new starting quarterback always harbors a level of uncertainty. There was no guarantee that Stevens would match McSorley’s play, or that he would provide the Nittany Lions with the same steady hand. Still, there was no particular reason to believe Clifford couldn’t if his number was called.

Nevertheless, the news of Stevens’ departure was a change in unofficial plans. Years of lobbying for Stevens to ride out the McSorley era and then potentially start in 2019 had always appeared to be the natural progression of things. Even if capable, Clifford taking over the starting job with Stevens still on the roster was never the betting-favorite outcome.

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“I think if everything is even, you're going to typically go with the older, more experienced player,” James Franklin said last week. “You know what you're going to get a little bit more. If it's not even, then it solves itself. You go with the more productive guy.

“Sean is in a situation where now he's the more experienced guy, but he's still going to have to compete and battle and make it obvious to everybody, and then the decision will be made. I think the decision would have probably been made a little bit earlier, but now that we're in this situation, we probably will let it go a little bit further.”

The caveat of course is the one which defined Penn State’s offseason, the simple fact that everything was not even by the time spring ball rolled around. Stevens, still recovering from surgery, was unable to compete in much of practice and any of the annual Blue White game. Suddenly Stevens’ assumed role was no longer as clear cut, Clifford working productively in practice all the while.

In Clifford’s eyes, he was simply making the most of his opportunity.

“I just think the biggest thing for me was just taking advantage of what I had in front of me and during the spring it was taking over the ropes,” Clifford said last week. “I treated myself like I was the starting quarterback at that time whether Tommy was or wasn't [healthy] or if I was or I wasn't [starting].”

On paper Clifford will still have to beat out Will Levis for the starting job, but given Franklin’s affinity for experience, it would be difficult to imagine Levis getting the nod when it is all said and done sometime this summer. While anything is possible, letting Levis get his fair share of first-team snaps in training camp is pragmatic for Levis’ own development at the No. 2 spot if nothing else.

“Obviously, when a guy leaves and there's one less guy that's part of the equation, it magnifies it. There's no doubt, it magnifies his opportunity, it creates more reps and all of those types of things,” Franklin added. “But I actually think that Levis, that Sean, and that Tommy were all going into it feeling like they were going to have to compete and that they were competing for the starting job. I would hope that they're approaching it that way.”

Assuming Clifford is, in fact, named the starter, what is the biggest challenge now? The details, all the little things that go from being important on the sideline to crucial in the backfield. Clifford has the physical tools, but in his eyes, it’s sharpening the knowledge to go with it.

“The extra step of preparation is probably the biggest [challenge] because obviously you know the past few years, I was prepared as a starter but you know it's not as pressing when you know you're not going to go into that game or you're not going to start the game off,” Clifford said.

“So I would say that's the biggest difference... that I’ve really got to know what they're going to give me on third-and-3. You can’t be like when it happens and I’m on the sideline and I’m like 'I think there is going to be in Cover-4 here?' You have to be way more prepared but I think I’ve gotten better and better over the years.”

Moving forward, Clifford will work on everything. He is, by his own admission, obsessed with football. It’s difficult to verify his claim to loving the game more than anyone on the team, that he will not be outworked by other quarterback across the country, but it’s not hard to believe that he is going to work to prove it.

As for his teammates, players from Justin Shorter to Micah Parsons have all said the same things about their presumptive starter: that he is a leader, that he competes as hard as anyone, and that they, too, truly believe everything will be OK.

Is it party-line cliche? Perhaps, but there is scant evidence to suggest they don’t mean what they say. There's even less to suggest they won’t rally behind Clifford with the same kind of confidence McSorley gave them. They may have expected Stevens to take over the role, but there is no sense Clifford is operating with any less clout. In the end, every great quarterback had his first start.

It will be up to Clifford to repay them for their loyalty and their faith, but it’s safe to say he’s looking forward to what that ultimately means: playing again.

“One thing that I took from the Kentucky game was I just really love being back out there because you practice and that's one thing, and it’s fun to go out and scrimmage your own team, but when you're out there in front of everybody and just playing the game that you love especially... I just love the sport. And when I was out there, I felt like I was meant to be there.”



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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