Midway through the 2019 regular season, Sean Clifford has been a worthy successor to Trace McSorley as Penn State’s starting quarterback. In his first year at the helm, the redshirt sophomore has shown the same strong arm, leadership qualities and work ethic that McSorley exhibited in 40 consecutive starts over three seasons.
What folks didn’t expect from Clifford was his ability to run the football as effectively as McSorley did. In fact, through six games, Clifford is second on the team in rushing and his 42.0 yards per game tops the averages of his predecessor in both 2016 (26.1 yards per game) and 2017 (37.8).
Head coach James Franklin wanted Clifford to realize his athletic potential after he arrived on campus. He recalled a time at practice two years ago where he pulled aside his young quarterback on the practice field.
“I said, ‘Look, you’re doing some great things, but you have got to get faster,’ ” Franklin said Tuesday. “ ’You have got to get more explosive for us to be able to run our offense the way we want to run it, and for you to have the type of impact we want you to have.’
“I look at how hard he’s worked — and I’m not saying that conversation was the reason he’s worked so hard because that’s how he’s wired anyway. But he’s worked himself into a really good athlete. Now we’re not going to go into a game with a game plan to run Sean, but when opportunities are there for him to extend plays or make plays with his feet, he can do it.”
Clifford, who will lead No. 7 Penn State into Saturday night’s “White Out” game against No. 16 Michigan, ran a 4.57-second time in the 40-yard dash in preseason. Franklin said he’s also improved his performance in jumping and change of direction.
Clifford averages nearly 10 rush attempts a game and has a season-high 58-yard run to his credit. His work with his feet has not surprised his teammates.
“He worked so hard in the offseason to get his speed up and his body right,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “I’ve seen him in winter workouts, seen him in summer workouts. So it’s not surprising at all to me. He’s going to do whatever it takes to put the team on his back and get us a win. I think he’s doing a great job.”
If there is one crack in his running style, it’s his slide at the end of some of his runs, a move Franklin calls, “like literally a Little League baseball slide.”
“It doesn’t look natural,” the coach said. “It’s awkward. So, literally we’re going to spend time at practice sliding, getting down. I think some of it is indecision. It’s like he wants to get as much yards as possible and then he kind of changes his mind. It’s like the squirrel crossing the road, you can’t be indecisive. He’s got to get better there.”
Clifford leads the Big Ten in total offense (302.0 yards per game) and passing yards (260.0). He averages 15.3 yards per completion (seventh in FBS) and 9.8 yards per attempt (ninth). He has thrown two interceptions in 159 passes and has yet to lose a fumble.
Of course, a running quarterback leaves himself open to the possibility of vicious hits. He absorbed a few of those against Pittsburgh, which sacked him three times and limited him to a season-low five rushing yards. At Iowa, he carried the ball a season-high 16 times — including three sacks.
“I hate to see my quarterback take hits just because that’s my guy and that’s who we depend on and that’s our leader,” wide receiver Jahan Dotson said. “So hopefully he slides a little more. But, Sean has done a great job with the run game and keeping it balanced with the pass game.”