When now-signee Sean Clifford committed to Penn State in the summer of 2015, it didn’t seem outlandish to think that he and Class of 2016 quarterback commit Jake Zembiec would be fighting for the starting job under center in just a few years. It also wasn’t crazy to think Zembiec would start as a true freshman, then Clifford would redshirt the next year and spend only one year of eligibility as a backup before taking the reins.
At the time, Christian Hackenberg was entering his junior year and was expected to head to the NFL. His two backups were a three-star, 182-lb. athlete and a three-star, dual threat quarterback with only a few Power-5 offers.
Now, 18 months later, that presumed two-man competition has turned into what will be a waiting game for Clifford.
A once scrawny athlete has emerged to become Big Ten Championship-winning quarterback Trace McSorley. That overlooked kid from Indianapolis is Tommy Stevens, McSorley’s backup, who battled for the starting job all summer and rose to the occasion with his ground skills every opportunity he got this season — rushing for 198 yards and a pair of touchdowns
Despite such a distinct change in the timetable for when Clifford will see the playing field, he has already made an impact on the program.
The class’ first commit, Clifford not only remained committed to James Franklin’s Nittany Lions through the developing logjam at quarterback. He, along with defensive end Yetur Matos, helped assemble the program’s best recruiting class since Joe Paterno brought in Mike Hull and DaQuan Jones in 2010.
Clifford regularly tweeted to his fellow recruits welcoming them to the Nittany Lions when they committed and attempting to sway them, most recently tantalizing then undecided, but now Alabama-bound wide receiver Harry Ruggs with promises of touchdown passes.
When other schools offered him after he committed to Penn State, Clifford didn’t entertain other programs with visits. Those coaches and schools eventually got the message that Clifford wasn’t wavering. They stopped offering with his last from Rutgers midway through his junior year — a time most players begin to garner the most attention.
“I do want to thank Sean Clifford and Yetur Matos, a lot of those guys that jumped onboard with us really early in the process,” Franklin said Wednesday during his post-Signing Day press conference. “They saw something in us very clear that maybe others didn’t. It’s really cool that we were able to reinforce that they made a great decision with how we played.”
In the first game of his senior season at St. Xavier, Clifford went down with an ankle injury and missed the next two games. When he returned, the Bombers were 0-3 but he managed to lead them to a 5-5 record and state tournament berth. Despite the underwhelming season, Clifford led St Xavier to a state title — much like how McSorley rallied his troops after a slow start to this season.
The leadership Clifford demonstrated throughout the recruiting process and during his roller coaster season is the type of intangible skill Franklin or any coach would want on his roster.
Of course his on-field talent and 6’2”, 205 lb. frame aren’t too shabby either.
Clifford threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,366 yards plus he rushed for 914 yards and 18 touchdowns in high school. Although Clifford is listed as a pro-style quarterback, his ability to both throw and run the ball resembles McSorley and makes Clifford a solid fit into Joe Moorhead’s offense.
Even with all this talent, Clifford will most likely redshirt this year.
If McSorley does exhaust his eligibility and stay for another two seasons, then the starting job won’t be up for grabs until 2019 with senior Stevens, junior Zembiec, sophomore Clifford, and 2018 commit Justin Fields all vying for the spot.
While there’s no way to tell when Clifford or any of these quarterbacks will play, or even if they will take the field at that position, a portion of the Nittany Lions’ imminent success can be attributed to Clifford’s fidelity and enthusiasm to assist Franklin on the recruiting trail.
“[Clifford] is a winner. Tommy Stevens, Jake Zembiec. We’re starting to get winners stockpiled at that position, every position,” Franklin said. “That’s one of the things we didn’t have when we got here, was depth and competition at every position. That’s going to make for an exciting spring. That’s going to make for an exciting fall. I’m really looking forward to it.”