The relationship between new Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and his quarterback, Sean Clifford, continues to grow in different areas, including discussions.
“Good conversations, man,” Yurcich said Thursday in his first Zoom meeting with reporters since the 2021 season began. “With a guy like Sean, you have football conversations. It’s not all one-way communication. You want to hear from him.
“What did you see? How’d you deal with it? OK, next time think about this. Keep this in your mind. You’re trying to help him out as much as you can. At the end of the day, my man’s got to make some plays, you know?”
Clifford has made his share of plays through the first five weeks of the season for the No. 4 Nittany Lions, who play Saturday at third-ranked Iowa. He has passed for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns, and has rushed for 137 yards, mostly on scrambles. He has been sacked eight times.
It’s the scrambles that make a lot of fans nervous given the inexperience of Penn State’s two backup quarterbacks. But Yurcich likes the fact that Clifford “has made up his mind to be a tough SOB and to stand in there and keep his eyes downfield on a consistent basis.”
“Any quarterback, the more mobile they are, the harder they are to defend,” he said. “It brings another element to your run game. Obviously we have to be smart and protect him, but at the same time, you’ve got to play to his strengths and you’ve got to run some quarterback runs. But it just makes you more dynamic, harder to defend.”
And when he’s standing in the pocket looking downfield, if Clifford sees a coverage in the secondary that will make it a high risk to throw the football, he’ll take off.
“Sean’s got athletic ability,” Yurcich said. “Last game [against Indiana] he had huge scrambles. When he sees it’s a certain coverage and they’ve lost [the ability to] contain, if he wants to get it out, you’ve got to let him get out; you’ve got to let him get out. He’s got to have that creativity.
“There’s a fine line – OK, eyes downfield, stay tough. Hey man, get out. You don’t want to handcuff a kid. So how you coach that, to me, is the secret sauce. That’s the fun of it all and getting to know one another.”
Clifford said he likes the creativity aspect when things break down.
“Extending the play and making sure you’re making plays outside the pocket when it breaks down every once in a while is part of the game,” he said Wednesday. “That’s what makes football fun. There are going to be off-script plays. That’s what makes playing quarterback so much fun, creating and being smart with the football at the same time.”
As for a progress report on the offense through the first five weeks, Yurcich is pleased with the way the Nittany Lions are securing the football — zero lost fumbles and three interceptions. He says the team is scoring enough points to win the game “and that’s the bottom line.”
However, he said his offense needs to become more explosive, a sentiment shared by head coach James Franklin. He noted the run game must be more effective, that “for whatever reason, the rhythm hasn’t been to where it needs to be elite.”
“We’re never going to reach a point where we’re satisfied,” Yurcich said. “Regardless of what we’ve scored, what we’ve gained, how we’ve thrown it, how we’ve run it, we’re never satisfied. That’s the mentality we’re always going to have regardless of any statistical analysis.
“It takes everybody. It takes everything. When it doesn’t go well, it’s usually related to a combination of things. There’s so much to it. That’s why it’s such a beautiful game. You need all 11 on every play. That’s my responsibility, to make sure these guys are doing the best they can together. As long as we continue to work, we have confidence that we’re going to get the most out of our guys.”