Apr. 9—Last week, a reporter asked Sean Clifford how much he has improved since last fall. Penn State’s junior quarterback responded, “A lot.”
Welcome to spring football, folks. It’s just like baseball at this time of year, when everybody is a contender, everybody is the best they’ve ever been until standings appear in the paper the morning after opening day and reality becomes a wet blanket once again. Difference in college football is, those hopes and good feelings last until an opening day that is still about five months away.
That’s a lot of time to dream.
Last season, the Nittany Lions poured a reservoir of ice water on their fans with top-10 ranking and championship dreams dashed by an 0-5 start, the catalyst of which being Clifford’s mastery for committing the ill-timed turnover.
Fast forward a few months, and plenty of good things are happening in Happy Valley as the Nittany Lions’ first spring practice in two years motors along. By most accounts, the offensive line is looking good. The receivers are gaining experience. The linebackers who struggled so badly in 2020 have been shuffled into positions where they can be more disruptive in 2021. Players who had precious few chances to get to know teammates and bond with them last year are enjoying time together now.
Head coach James Franklin is confident. A fairly talented group of freshmen led by cornerback Kalen King and offensive lineman Landon Tengwall have been wowing veteran teammates. And new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is on board, vowing to work his magic.
On paper, online and in print, everything new is bringing hope in State College.
But rest assured, this spring is all about one player. And how much success Penn State has, or doesn’t have, this fall will depend on just how much improvement “a lot” really is at the quarterback position.
“It was definitely a difficult year for everybody, including myself,” Clifford said. “I learned so many things just about leadership and hard work and staying the course. From all those experiences, I’ve just piled up into my memory bank just how to deal with certain situations on and off the field. I think it just grew me as a man more than it did as a player.”
The lone option
In more ways than one, it has been a unique spring for Penn State. But purely from a football perspective, the fact the quarterbacks are such a focal point is rare.
Usually, the quarterback is a big story in the spring when there’s a race for the starting job. With longtime backup Will Levis off to Kentucky, there isn’t one here.
It can be a big story in the spring when there’s a legitimate recruit pushing for an increased role. There doesn’t seem to be one here.
In this day and age, it can be a big story in the spring if there’s a newcomer out of the transfer portal who provides depth and intrigue. But, nothing to look at from that perspective, either.
No, the story is that the guy who turned the ball over a whopping 12 times in the first 14 quarters he played last season is your franchise. And, there’s no real alternative.
Let’s also concede one more reality. Franklin didn’t bring Yurcich in to pound the football the way the Nittany Lions did during their four-game winning streak to end the season. His offense is powered by a big-strike, down-the-field passing game. It has made star quarterbacks at Oklahoma State and Texas.
None of that is going to matter, though, if Clifford is nothing more than a game manager.
Penn State has to develop the inside of its offensive line. It needs to settle the rotation at running back. It needs to find some depth along the defensive line. It needs its new formation at linebacker to jell, and it needs more consistent kicking.
All of that can happen this spring. And it still doesn’t matter if Clifford doesn’t make the most of the 15 practices Penn State is getting.
“He doesn’t take that 0-5 thing lightly at all,” receiver Jahan Dotson said. “Every single day, he comes out to practice ready to work. He pushes us to get better. We see him setting the standard of getting there early and leaving there late and working hard. He’s been a tremendous leader throughout spring ball.”
The media can ask all they want, and trust me they’ve tried, to gauge the temperature on backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson, who has appeared in a grand total of one game. And Franklin and strength guru Dwight Galt can wax poetic about the potential of prized freshman Christian Veilleux, who played zero games as a high school senior because his season got postponed in Maryland.
This team’s only chance to be a contender is if Sean Clifford plays well. If he doesn’t, there’s simply no avoiding back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 17 years. Unless a stud quarterback falls into the transfer portal, which doesn’t happen often, it’s Clifford or bust. It’s improve or fail.
Everybody inside that program realizes it, too. Including the guy who needs to most.
DONNIE COLLINS covers Penn State football for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @PennStateTT.