During nearly three months away from the Penn State campus and his teammates, quarterback Sean Clifford had worked on ways to help the Nittany Lions improve on last year’s 11-win season.
It was all about “trying to find that inch,” Clifford said. It was about looking for any advantage he can to move the Lions ahead of their Big Ten rivals, Ohio State and Michigan, as well as the nation’s best, being the most effective team training and studying from home.
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One of his ideas was acquiring a whiteboard, drawing up plays on it and placing it on an easel to show to his wide receivers and the rest of his offensive teammates on Zoom.
“I’ve been sending guys different things on that and just trying to make the most of every minute, every day, that we have away from each other,” Clifford said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.
“Right now, we’re working for each inch that we can get away from each other so that way when we get back together, we can start putting them together and make some big strides.”
The Nittany Lions now get a chance to put those ideas into practice on the field. In their first phase of their return to campus, they will welcome back 75 players on Monday who will be tested and quarantined. Those who are medically cleared may participate in voluntary workouts beginning June 15.
The workouts, which will be limited in size to groups of less than 20 and supervised by the program’s performance enhancement and sports medicine staffs, will give Clifford a chance to practice in the retooled offense introduced after the team’s Cotton Bowl win by new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
The pair didn’t have much time to work together before the coronavirus pandemic forced everyone to leave campus before the start of spring practice. Since then, they have been working over the phone and on Zoom.
“We’ve talked through situations, we’ve talked through what he expects me to do,” said Clifford, a redshirt junior. “But obviously he hasn’t even seen me throw, so he doesn’t know. All he has is the game film from last year in a different offense.”
In his first year as a starter in 2019, Clifford completed just over 59% of his passes for 2,654 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions while rushing for 402 yards and five scores. He was slowed by injuries in late-season games at Minnesota and at Ohio State and missed the final regular-season contest against Rutgers.
Clifford said one characteristic about working remotely was Ciarrocca’s knack for changing things.
“He switches up the meetings a lot,” he said. “We do a lot of different types of meetings. We’ll have strictly film. We’ll have note-taking. One day we actually played Jeopardy as a group, which was a lot of fun. We had different categories and he was the game host.
“He gives us a bunch of different looks. We’ll talk through plays. He’ll talk for a while. He’ll make it really interactive. So I think that it’s just the variety of different things that he does. He keeps us on our toes, makes sure that we’re really staying on top of the playbook. It’s been great. I think that this time has been actually pretty good for our team.”
Clifford had been working out at home with his younger brother, Liam, a wide receiver who has committed to Penn State for 2021. He also has worked on the mental side of his game with the help of Seth Makowsky, a chess coach who uses the board game to improve performance.
Makowsky’s clients include Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, and he worked last year with Chip Kelly’s UCLA football team.
“He’s not a chess trainer; he's like an elite mindset trainer,” Clifford said. “So he really teaches you how to go through your reads and have a good formula to attack each play, attack each day, and kind of just grow as a person. So I think that's just one thing that I've really been working on.”
Before the campus return was announced, Clifford expressed concern about having enough time to work with his teammates. But he knew they would be ready to work.