Sean Clifford scanned the coverage in front of him Wednesday night as the Blue Band’s “Floating Lions” drill music blared at the Lasch Building practice facility.
Tommy Stevens, helmet off, watched Clifford target Justin Shorter in the Nittany Lions’ red-zone session.
That’s been the norm much of spring camp — Clifford throwing, Stevens watching.
Clifford is taking the first-team snaps while Stevens works his way back from pre-Citrus Bowl surgery. Will Levis has stepped into the No. 2 role, followed by 2019 signees Ta’Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson.
Clifford knows, however, that this current setup won’t last forever. Come the fall, the quarterback competition will actually start — and he’s looking forward to it.
“For me, right now, I’m No. 1. I’m taking the one’s reps. When Tommy comes back, it’s back to competition. And I’m excited for that,” Clifford said after practice, before addressing the impending battle. “It’ll be as intense as we make it. We’re trying to put a bunch of pressure on each other to get us better.”
Taking advantage of opportunity: In the meantime, Clifford — the self-described “most competitive guy on this team” — has taken advantage of his opportunities.
Last year, Clifford was primarily the No. 3 quarterback. He operated as Trace McSorley’s backup at times; Stevens was on the shelf for Penn State’s first four games, leaving mop-up duties to the Cincinnati native. In limited game reps, Clifford completed 5 of 7 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns — impressive figures, albeit a small sample size.
Bigger and faster: In winter workouts, Clifford continued to make himself more versatile. When he arrived on campus two years ago, the former four-star prospect was 185 pounds and considered strictly a pocket passer. On Wednesday, Clifford weighed in at 218 pounds — but he said in the process of putting on muscle, he lost fat and added speed.
“Because of his competitiveness and that pride, he went from what people would list as a pro-style quarterback to, I think, a guy who’s a legitimate dual-threat quarterback — who can hurt you in so many ways,” head coach James Franklin said after practice. “He’s worked so hard at changing his body, getting stronger, getting more explosive.”
Added Clifford: “I’m not trying to be Michael Vick out here. That’s not who I am. I’m Sean Clifford, and I know that. But I’m trying to add another dynamic to my game. That way I can press defenses in different ways.”
Going against PSU defense: Come the fall, Clifford might be pressing Ohio State and Michigan’s defenses. But for now, he’s working against the likes of Micah Parsons, Cam Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos and the rest of Penn State’s first-team when the Nittany Lions go good-on-good.
Clifford said those No. 1 reps have been “probably as big as you think it is” to his development. Brent Pry’s unit — which he called “one of the best defenses in the country” — has challenged him. It hasn’t been easy.
Gaining confidence: But the work now in spring practice has set Clifford up for 2020 and beyond — if not a legitimate run at McSorley’s vacated spot in the fall.
“It pushes my game to the next level,” the quarterback added. “I think this spring has proved to me that I can play here. That’s what reps are all about. It’s showing yourself that versus this coverage, I know I can make that throw. ... That’s the biggest thing in the spring. Getting the reps and gaining confidence.”