STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –– Sean Clifford told his Penn State teammates all week he wouldn’t be nervous in his first career start.
Then he walked out to the field for warmups. Then he ran out of the tunnel in front of 104,000-plus fans. Then the ball snapped for the first time.
Clifford had a few misses on the first two drives and went to the sideline knowing he needed to chill out.
“The first two drives were not up to my standard,” Clifford said. “My feet were kind of all over the place, but when you have guys that have confidence in you, they just told me to settle down.”
One of those guys was KJ Hamler.
“At the beginning he knew he was nervous. I could tell, and I just pulled him aside and I was like, ‘Calm down. Let’s get all the jitters out. That was the first drive. You’re fine,’ ” Hamler said. “He just went on a little rampage after that. I think he just needed to get into the groove of things at first.”
After those first two drives that resulted in a pair of field goals, Clifford looked like the quarterback that a lot of people think he can be.
Clifford led a pair of touchdown drives that were capped off by rushing scores by Journey Brown and Ricky Slade. Then Clifford got on the board himself with a touchdown pass to the guy who calmed his nerves on the sidelines a few minutes before.
“KJ is like a vet now,” Clifford said. “When you have a guy like that on your side, it helps you calm down a lot. After that second drive, we got it going as an offense. We were way more efficient.”
The peak of that efficiency displayed by Clifford and the offense came on the second-to-last drive of the first half. The drive started at Penn State’s 24-yard line –– one of the few drives in the first half that the Nittany Lions started in their own half.
But just four plays later –– and after only 1 minute, 19 seconds came off the clock –– Clifford had connected with Hamler for their second touchdown combination of the game.
Even in just those four plays, Clifford showed off his full arsenal of skills.
The drive started with a 13-yard carry by Clifford. It was followed up by a perfect 20-yard pass to Daniel George along the sideline. On the next play, Clifford patiently waited for Hamler to find the soft spot in the defense and delivered a strike for a 22-yard gain. Then came the touchdown pass. It almost seemed effortless as Clifford lofted the ball into the back corner of the end zone.
The nerves were clearly gone at that point, and the Clifford to Hamler combination was on full display.
“I’ve been throwing with Sean since eighth grade in camps and stuff,” Hamler said. “Sean is the reason I’m here.”
Even before he was named a captain as a redshirt sophomore, Clifford has wanted to be a leader. He was the Nittany Lions’ first commitment in the 2017 recruiting class. He took it upon himself to help recruit talented offensive players to lead Penn State’s offense down the road.
Two of those players –– Hamler and Brown –– combined for four touchdowns on Saturday. Several others from that recruiting class –– Tariq Castro-Fields, Jonathan Sutherland, Fred Hansard and more –– are going to make a big impact on defense this season. Hamler isn’t the only one that has credited Clifford with being a big reason they decided to commit to the Penn State program. It leads one to think, what did Clifford say exactly to get them all on board?