Several factors will determine the outcome of Penn State’s 2021 season, but few may be as impactful – or as consequential – for the short and longterm trajectory of the program quite like the play of quarterback Sean Clifford.
Clifford, who appears poised to enter his third year as the Nittany Lions’ starter and his third-straight year with a new offensive coordinator, is looking to rebound from a fairly dismal 2020 campaign that was peppered with turnovers, miscues and oddities that only highlighted the strange nature of the season at-large.
For critics of Clifford’s play in a far more successful 2019 season – but a year that largely saw the Nittany Lions lose their most marquee matchups – 2020 proved to be further evidence that Clifford was not slated to continue the success of his predecessor Trace McSorley.
And on Saturday as Clifford had a fairly unremarkable showing during Penn State’s open practice and scrimmage, missing a handful of throws and turning the ball over, it did little to dampen the concerns that his 2020 season may have been more indicative of things to come rather than an outlier. Of course one open practice and scrimmage does not a trend make.
But between head coach James Franklin and new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, the overall reviews of Clifford’s spring were not the most ringing endorsements.
“I think Sean’s done some really good things this spring,” Franklin said. “I think, you know Mike [Yurcich] has really been impressed from what I’ve seen in terms of Sean’s approach, it’s really important to Sean, he works really hard at it. He prepares like you’re supposed to prepare.”
Of course preparation is only half the battle, as Yurcich tactfully pointed out – the rest of it is getting the ball from Point A to Point B.
“He prepares like a pro. I really like his preparation and his passion – it’s impressive to see him care so much about wanting to get better, wanting to win, competing every day,” Yurcich said.
“Where he can improve the most is, you know, probably just the progressions and anticipation. There’s a lot new on his plate right now, and it’s one of those things where you kind of don’t know until you actually get thrown in there and have to feel it. He’s just got to get his eyes where they need to be more consistently. […] it’s just a matter of time it’s a matter of reps, and that’s what that’s what this spring is all about.”
There’s nothing automatically alarming about this statement as Penn State and Clifford sit just weeks into digesting a new offense, but for a quarterback who has struggled at times with both his accuracy [albeit, completing 60% of his passes in 2020] and his decision making, that general trend rolling into a third year would make for a challenging 2021.
But as all parties were quick to point out, the summer and the rest of the spring allows for far more working the passing game than really any other aspect of the offense. Clifford can continue to improve through film study, work with his receivers on the field and continue to become more comfortable overall in a new offense.
“We’re working on it, you know – I don’t want to give you any evaluation right now,” Yurcich said. “But the effort is there, the concentration is there, the want to is there. We’re going to continue to work every day. That’s the biggest thing; where can I help him improve, how can I coach him better, how can I get through to him faster to where we make zero mistakes that he’s on point. We’re chasing that perfect game.”
As for the man himself, and Clifford isn’t worried.
“I mean there’s not much frustration right now I’m really content with where I’m at,” Clifford said Saturday. “You know, last season was last season so there’s nothing really to harp on now. And I’m just excited to have this new fresh start with this team […] so no problems right now.”
Clifford rounding back into his 2020 form and nothing more would be a welcome sight for a Penn State program that has no legitimate options to replace him if he were to play poorly. Franklin has long been open about shopping on the transfer market for a quarterback to deepen the room, but for all his woes, Clifford would likely be the best quarterback available if he were to enter the transfer portal tomorrow. In turn, any incoming quarterback would be much more about depth than a legitimate threat to Clifford’s starting role.
And for those eager to see freshman Christian Veilleux or Ta’Quan Roberson as a matter of principle – the grass isn’t always greener. At least not yet.