Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford had barely two months of personal instruction with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca at the start of 2020 before the pandemic forced the closing of college campuses all over the country, relegating their personal interactions to Zoom calls.
But since the Nittany Lions were allowed to return in June, Clifford has spent much time with his new coach adapting to the team’s revamped offense while their relationship continues to grow.
“I think we connected right from the beginning,” Clifford, a redshirt junior, said Thursday on a Zoom call with reporters. "I think he’s a very easy person to talk to, especially when you’re in the football facility. We get along really well because we both love the game.
“I think both of us are extremely hard workers, and so the minute that we had the chance to finally get going, I think that that also helped our relationship. It keeps growing every day on and off the field, getting to know him in so many ways. I think that he’s an outstanding coach, really changed my thought process on some things, made the game a lot easier for me. I’m excited to put that product on the field coming up soon.”
Ciarrocca, a Temple graduate and former Penn assistant, has liked what he’s seen of Clifford as well, especially what he called his “unbelievable work ethic.”
“We connected early on, and it’s continuing to grow every day,” he said. “He’s improved in every area. I think maybe probably the biggest growth that he’s made … we’ve spent so much time meeting and talking about this process, this pre-snap thinking that we want to do, and applying it to the plays. I think that probably he’s really been able to see since we’ve started to go here again how it all works.”
Clifford passed for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, his first as a starter. But what was believed to be a leg injury forced him to miss much of the second half at Ohio State and the entire home game against Rutgers. The Lions were ranked 76th in passing in FBS (221.3 yards per game) last season and 57th in total offense (411.9).
Ciarrocca, who was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator the last three seasons, can help. Head coach James Franklin got a good view of his capabilities last November when the Golden Gophers defeated Penn State, 31-26, rolling up 337 passing yards, including 307 on 14 catches from their two wide receivers.
Clifford said it’s all about the details with Ciarrocca, especially with the Nittany Lions opening Oct. 24 at Indiana, the first game of their condensed nine-game, no-bye-week schedule.
“Coach Ciarrocca really harps on the details and finding the littlest things to get better at,” he said. “That’s kind of been the name of the game with this offense right now. Details are the most important thing because, A: It’s a new offense, and B: We’re battling the clock. We don’t have much time, and we haven’t had the spring and the summer to develop the way that we’ve wanted to.
“Football is a team game, and you need to get everybody together. The chemistry needs to be there. So we just need to keep grinding out these details day-in and day-out. We talk about every day mentality, 1-0 mentality, but that really takes precedent right now because we only have 3 or 4 weeks until this first game.”
With no spring practice and no chance for Clifford to work with his receivers because of a quarantine, the passing game is of particular emphasis. Other than Jahan Dotson (27 catches), no returning wide receiver had as many as 10 receptions last year. A pair of promising redshirt freshmen, John Dunmore and T.J. Jones, will get a chance to contribute.
“I think that it’s extremely important that we talk through everything,” Clifford said. “Communication is key for me. If I have a problem with a guy running a certain route or if I really liked a certain route, I’m going to express that to him because I know that we’re kind of battling the clock on the amount of time, especially with some of these younger guys that are going to be key factors in our offense.”