Sixth time a charm? Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford wants one more chance to get it right
Clifford, who announced his decision last week to return in 2022, said he wants to "right the ship" after a disappointing end to the 2021 regular season. He will play in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl.
The quarterbacks come and go at Penn State, and four different offensive coordinators have called the signals in Happy Valley over the past five years, but Sean Clifford continues to hang around and work on improving his craft as he completes a fifth season and anticipates yet another in the program.
Clifford, who will wind up his third year as a starter in the Nittany Lions’ Jan. 1 Outback Bowl contest against Arkansas, announced on Dec. 10 that he will return for his sixth season in the Blue and White. He will be in line to shatter program passing records if he stays healthy — and remains the starter.
He has seen the highs and lows in his career: The 8-0 start and a Cotton Bowl victory in 2019, a horrendous 0-5 start in a 2020 season that saw him commit 12 turnovers; five straight wins and a No. 4 ranking in 2021 before an unsightly 2-5 finish to the regular season.
“I wouldn’t necessary say it’s unfinished business,” Clifford said Friday at the Lions’ virtual bowl media day. “I definitely want to right the ship and do it the way that I want. We had a lot of ups and downs this season.
“I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen an undefeated team, top-five teams, won a New Year’s Six bowl and then had last year when we were 0-5. I’ve seen both sides. I’ve been through it all. There’s still a lot of opportunity for growth, especially with this offense and these guys. That excites me.”
In 12 games this season, Clifford has completed 62.4% of his passes for 2,912 yards and 20 touchdowns, with just six interceptions. He has had four 300-yard passing games this season, topped by his 401 yards against Villanova on Sept. 25.
He did not finish two games. He was knocked out of the Oct. 9 Iowa game in the second quarter with an upper-body injury, and left the Nov. 19 game against Rutgers before the end of the first quarter because of an illness.
Clifford, who will celebrate his 24th birthday just before the start of 2022 training camp, said multiple factors played into his decision to return.
“It was a lot of discussion with my family, my teammates, my friends, everybody around me,” he said. “I thought I had a few good decisions to make. I wasn’t in a bad place. I thought that coming back was my best decision and one that can help the team as well. I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the bowl game first, and then moving on from there.”
Clifford said it was “an added bonus” to be able to play with his younger brother, Liam, a wide receiver, who sat out the entire 2021 season as a redshirt freshman.
Since entering Penn State in 2017, Clifford has learned under offensive coordinators Joe Moorhead, Ricky Rahne, Kirk Ciarrocca and Mike Yurcich, who took over last January. The Nittany Lions dropped off in production this season as compared to 2020, averaging 22.8 points and 353.6 total yards while failing to score more than three offensive touchdowns in eight of their nine Big Ten games.
Clifford, however, appreciates the stability of working another year with Yurcich.
“Having that stability and that opportunity to play with coach Yurcich again, run the same playbook, being able to add and take out things, being able to talk through the offseason, there’s a lot of value in that, which is underappreciated,” he said. “We made some strides this year, but we can take it to the next level next year.”
Yurcich said he wanted Clifford back, but that he wasn’t going to recruit him.
“He had to figure that out on his own,” Yurcich said. “He has to want to come back for this next season. I think that’s really important. He kind of talked with his close friends and parents and people that he confides in, and came to the conclusion that coming back would be beneficial to his career and what he wants to do, which we’re ecstatic about.”
Clifford has seen many changes in Penn State’s quarterback room. Will Levis (Kentucky), Michael Johnson Jr. (Florida Atlantic), and Micah Bowens (Oklahoma) have transferred during his time there, and Ta’Quan Roberson, the No. 2 quarterback for much of 2021, put his name in the transfer portal last week.
The Nittany Lions last week signed two high school quarterbacks — Drew Allar of Medina, Ohio, and Beau Pribula of York, Pa. — who will enroll next month. They will join Clifford and backup Christian Veilleux, who passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns against Rutgers.
“I think we’re going to be super talented,” Clifford said. “I’m really excited to be that old guy for everybody so they can learn and grow and make strides for this team.”