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Penn State players requested tougher offseason workouts that have led to a better 2021 to date

Quarterback Sean Clifford said the leaders on the Nittany Lions felt the team culture slipped in 2020 when the players weren't as together as much because of COVID, and that it's improved this season

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Seeking a way to make sure they did not have a repeat of what they went through in 2020, Penn State’s veteran players let it be known that they wanted their offseason workouts to be tougher than what they’d previously experienced.

Quarterback Sean Clifford and other members of the Nittany Lions’ Leadership Council -- a group composed of players from each class -- said a change was needed to rebuild the team’s culture that was affected by the COVID season, and they discussed it with head coach James Franklin.

“I felt like our culture kind of slipped last year from the leadership perspective,” Clifford said in a Zoom interview with reporters this week. “Because of COVID, we made excuses for things. That’s not how we run our program.

“We went to Franklin right away and said we need to be pushed. We’re going to have no backlash on any of it, no complaining. We’re going to make sure we’re working hard. The team responded really well to that. We had a great offseason. It’s paying off week-in and week-out. We’ve got to keep it going. You have to fight for your culture every day.”

Clifford said COVID restrictions and players being apart for the spring and much of the summer of 2020 were “weird times for everybody.”

“I think it was just over time, just not being around the guys,” he said. “I’m not going to harp on last year that much because it’s over. We just didn’t have the time that we could spend together and the opportunities to be with each other the way that we usually do. It just changed. I can’t really pinpoint a time.”

Senior defensive end/linebacker Jesse Luketa felt his team needed the emotional and physical stress from the tougher workouts where each player could “really see who you are as an individual.”

“It brought us closer together,” Luketa said. “I feel like through adversity, you and your family come together. It’s only right. So I thought this offseason, I felt like it was one of the best since I’ve been here. It brought us together. We’re a tight-knit group. And we’re tough, mentally tough.”

The Lions have been more upbeat and together than they were in 2020, going from a 0-4 start a year ago to a 4-0 opening and a No. 4 ranking this season heading into Saturday night’s game against Indiana at Beaver Stadium.

Clifford has made a significant contribution to his team’s fast start, particularly in the last two weeks. He completed 28 of 32 passes -- an 87.5% completion rate, highest by a Penn State quarterback in 25 years -- for 280 yards in the win over Auburn. He threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns the following week against Villanova, hitting each one of his 12 passes on 12 targets to Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington in the victory.

Entering Saturday night, Clifford ranked in the top 20 nationally in passing efficiency (14th), completion percentage (71.7, 14th), passing yardage (289.5, 17th), yards per attempt (9.65, 12th), and total offense (309.2, 20th).

Clifford said he’s had a good experience working with new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.

“He’s good,” he said. “He does a really good job of relaying information quickly and effectively to me, especially when I need it. He also does a really good job of keeping me calm but also firing me up when I need to. He’s got a really good balance to him with that.”

Beamon unavailable

Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Hakeem Beamon, who was believed to be a strong candidate to gain a role in the defensive line rotation, has been ruled “unavailable” for the remainder of the season, head coach James Franklin said.

“He will be unavailable this week and this season,” Franklin said at his weekly Wednesday night availability. “Hakeem loves football, so in practice he’s always good because he loves to play football, but he will be unavailable this week and he will be unavailable for the season.”

The 6-foot-3, 276-pound Beamon played in 11 games the past two seasons, posting a personal best with three tackles last year against Iowa.