Relationship between Sean Clifford, Red Land grad Kirk Ciarrocca key to PSU's success
Penn State’s redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford is no stranger to change. In his four years with the Nittany Lions, he’s had three different offensive coordinators/quarterbacks coaches.
Now headed into his second season as the presumed starter, he’ll have a new coach in former Minnesota OC Kirk Ciarrocca, whom Clifford has had to get to know mostly virtually since the COVID-19 pandemic canceled spring football and sent students home from the university in mid-March. Despite the challenges of not getting to work together in-person, the pair have still been able to form a strong relationship since they first met ahead of the Cotton Bowl game in December.
“Clifford and Kirk’s relationship is going really good,” head coach James Franklin said. “I think getting Kirk here early for our bowl game was important. ... I think we’re heading in the right direction there.”
Ciarrocca is a former York County resident who graduated from Red Land High School.
Less time to work: The relationship between the new offensive coordinator and his quarterback will be especially important this season, as the new offensive will have less time to work together before the scheduled start of the season on Sept. 5. Clifford will be tasked with leading an offense that, less than three months until the scheduled start of the regular season, he hasn’t practiced in yet.
The overall success of the transition from former OC Ricky Rahne’s to Ciarrocca’s offense will largely depend on Clifford’s ability to excel in the system. Without that opportunity to practice, there could be some early-season troubles for the Nittany Lions. Ciarrocca will have to trust the redshirt junior’s ability to handle the offense for it to find its highest levels of success. So far, the two have developed mutual respect for one another.
“Coach Ciarrocca is definitely somebody I’ve looked up to so far and really picked his brain to become a better player,” Clifford said.
Their ability to connect is vital due to the nature of the bond between an offensive coordinator and a quarterback.
Need to be on same page: Ciarrocca must believe Clifford can execute at a high level. He needs the junior quarterback to be on the same page to make the offense go. Clifford needs to show the requisite arm strength, decision-making and accuracy to open up the entire playbook for use at Ciarrocca’s disposal. The offensive coordinator believes Clifford has the drive to meet his standards.
“The one thing Sean has is he wants to be great,” Ciarrocca said. “That’s one of the things that’s impressed me about Sean ... is (his) willingness to do the work to get where (he) wants to get to.”
Trust pivotal: Clifford must trust Ciarrocca as a coach and as a play-caller.
He needs his coach to make the right play calls at the right time, put him in the best position to succeed and, most importantly, keep him healthy. For Clifford, the balance doesn’t matter nearly as much as the outcome of the game.
“I really don’t know if I’m going to run more, pass more,” Clifford said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to win. I think Coach Ciarrocca is on the same wavelength for that.”
Running question: Ciarrocca’s quarterbacks at Minnesota were complete non-threats as rushers last season. Starter Tanner Morgan ran for -57 yards on 61 carries, which includes the yardage lost on sacks. Clifford ran the ball 116 times for 402 yards in 2019, his first season as Penn State’s starter.
The stark contrast could find a middle ground now that Ciarrocca is melding his offense with Clifford’s ability to move his feet. But still, the coordinator wants to do what he must to help the quarterback reach his upside.
“We’d be crazy not to run our quarterbacks,” Ciarrocca said. “That’s one of the things they do really well. ... I just think you have to be prudent with it. ... I do understand that every time I ask him to run the ball, I’ve increased his opportunity or risk for an injury.”
Looking to fix issues: Clifford’s success on the ground will have to be replaced by more passing success if he’s not going to show off his wheels as often. The redshirt junior quarterback struggled with decision-making and footwork at times last season, with the latter causing inaccuracy issues.
He’s well aware of the issues and has already begun to work on fixing them before he takes a rep under Ciarrocca.
“Coach Ciarrocca has pointed a lot of thing I can keep on getting better at,” Clifford said. “One thing is definitely footwork just because in this offense we have a little bit of different footwork. ... Coach Ciarrocca is a very detail-oriented guy.”
Improved footwork will lead to improved passing for Clifford this season, and that could open the door to a higher ceiling for Penn State. Last year’s team desperately needed its offense to step up when its elite defense had an off day. That didn’t happen enough last season and Clifford was often left without an answer to elite opposing defenses.
Whether Ciarrocca can help unlock Clifford’s upside and allow him to reach his ceiling and push the Nittany Lions into the playoff picture will largely depend on how strong of a relationship the pair have built during their time away from the field.