The numbers Sean Clifford has accumulated in his first season as Penn State’s starting quarterback have been impressive – 1,742 yards passing, 16 touchdown throws, 287.3 yards per game of total offense, and, perhaps the most important one, just two interceptions in 184 passes.
However, there is far more to being a successful quarterback than simply executing the plays. The multifaceted position requires constant film study, accepting constructive critiques from coaches, displaying leadership, creating confidence, and having your teammates believe in you.
For the 21-year-old Clifford, it means growth every week and learning what he needs to be.
“I definitely know what type of quarterback I want to be with my team when it comes from a leadership perspective,” the redshirt sophomore from Cincinnati said this week. “I also kind of figure out how I want to be in games, how I want to act, when to get excited, when to keep my emotions level.
“But at the same time, I’m still growing," he added. "I’m still learning each game. Each game, new problems arise, new issues and new situations come into play. So, I think it’s learning from all those, writing down, taking notes, always reflecting and trying to be a better football player and a better person each and every single day.”
Clifford is an avid watcher of film and perhaps his toughest critic. He also is known to get a little amped at the start of games, such as in the season opener against Idaho and performing in Iowa’s earsplitting environment.
“I think there have been some games where he’s been jacked up and juiced up, and I don’t know if that’s completely served him well at times,” head coach James Franklin said. “But, overall, I’m really pleased with Sean. He’s been really good. I see him growing every game. I see him growing every practice. I know how important it is to him.
“You’ve got to be authentic as a player and as a leader, and I think he’s doing that," Franklin added. "But, I think him finding his sweet spot as a starting quarterback in the Big Ten and as one of the leaders on our team, I think that’s going to be evolving. He’s going to learn something every game and learn something in terms of reading defenses.”
With this evolution, Clifford is putting his stamp on the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions, who travel to Michigan State on Saturday, being his team.
Before becoming a starter, Clifford spent two seasons on the sidelines learning from Trace McSorley, his record-breaking predecessor. He always was quick to give McSorley credit in teaching him how to prepare to become a quarterback in a big-time program.
Now, Clifford is finding his own path.
“It’s gotten to the point where I’m trying to create my own identity, trying to become the quarterback that I want to be,” he said. “I think that, obviously, Trace built a great foundation for our offense and for me. I appreciate it a lot. But, at the same time, I’ve been working very hard to bring a new generation to Penn State and get this thing going.”
Clifford said his 26-for-31, 398-yard performance at Maryland “was probably closest to the best game we’ve had” in all three phases. But he also realizes the offensive funks of recent games are not acceptable.
“We’ve seen a couple of lulls, which we need to eliminate,” he said. “We’re working really hard to identify why some of them are happening. We’ve just got to keep pushing, keep identifying what’s going on, and talking through things on the sidelines to get us more prepared for the third-quarter- and fourth-quarter-type situations.”
Clifford has been effective with the deep ball — six completions of more than 50 yards, 14 of 30 yards or longer — but work on shorter and intermediate routes continues at practice and afterward, “learning a little bit extra with whoever it may be that’s going to be running that route," he said. "That way, you’re confident going into the game.”