It’s not lost on anyone, least of all Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford that things could have gone better for the Nittany Lions in 2020.
And it’s also not lost on Clifford he was partially responsible for some of the low points Penn State had last season. It’s not lost on him he has to take care of the ball better, not a surprise that turning it over is bad or that incomplete or wayward passes aren’t how you win games.
None of this is news to him, none of this hasn’t crossed his mind time and time again.
Which puts Clifford in an interesting place entering 2021 that not many athletes get: a shot at doing it all over again. Sure, the 2020 season is on the books, but with no obvious replacement in Penn State’s quarterback room as of March 29th and the low likelihood that a better option will come flying through the door this summer – Clifford is the guy. A guy with a chance to redefine what people think of him.
“Just learning how to deal with the trials and tribulations,” Clifford said of what he learned last season. “And just throughout a whole season, and being able to maneuver through all that, because it’s not gonna be all sunshine and rainbows every single play every single game. And you got to be able to handle that adversity day in and day out.”
The good news for Penn State and Clifford is that things are a lot more straightforward this year than they were in a strange and dramatic 2020. For one, while the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, it’s trending in the right direction. In turn practice is a bit more normal, and the future is bit more predictable. So unlike a 2020 offseason when Clifford only got to throw with freshman receiver Parker Washington two weeks before the season started, now he’s got a whole offseason to work with his targets.
And a whole offseason to work with new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
“We’re just so similar,” Clifford said. “You see it in the meetings…I’ll just be talking just because I want to express my point, and then he’ll want to talk too and so it kind of goes both ways sometimes. I think it’s a really good relationship so far. It’s fun, and we’re kind of learning that balance within the room.”
“He seemed really nice on the first meeting. I’m not saying he’s not nice now, but he’s definitely got a hard side to him at some points,” Clifford added with a smile. “I’m learning to appreciate the balance that he brings. He’ll come into a meeting, we’ll have some fun, but when you’ve got to be serious, he’ll be as serious as he needs to be.”
In the long run the balance of good cop and bad cop might be what Clifford and Penn State’s offense needs. On the one hand the Nittany Lions know they have to get better, but sometimes the pressure of getting better can make that improvement harder. Shooters in a slump grab the ball tighter. Hockey players looking for a goal grab the stick harder. Golfers overthink a putt. Everything is just a little bit harder when the pressure feels a little bit greater to turn things around.
“To be benched on national television and for everybody to see. It takes a lot just out of you,” Clifford said. “Because you know, you’re that guy. You want to lead your team, you want to be there for everybody. And then the one week that you don’t have that opportunity, it kind of hurts. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t, but at the same time, I knew that I had to be there for my teammates and for [quarterback Will Levis] especially. The next day I didn’t come in with any bitterness, I didn’t come in with any, you know, Oh, woe is me mentality. I honestly just looked at it as an opportunity to grow an opportunity to learn.”
In the grand scheme of things that might be the biggest thing Penn State can take from the 2020 season – the lessons. If Clifford and his teammates can turn those lessons into action in 2021, a strange season in the rearview can be the outline that it already was.
And as for Yurcich, it helps to have a coach – in Clifford’s eyes – that makes you want to attack the day, not dwell on yesterday.
“We just want to be there,” Clifford said. “…It’s really just every single day, the way he talks, the way he commands the room. He’s not a thermometer, he’s a thermostat. When he walks in he changes the temperature of the room. It inspires me as a leader as well to learn from that.”
And learning from “that” be it Yurcich or the season that was, could be the best thing for Clifford and his teammates.
Because they know they’ve got to be better, that’s not lost on anyone.