SAUBER: For Penn State's offense to succeed, Yurcich must help Clifford find consistency
Sean Clifford dropped back in Saturday afternoon's spring practice at Beaver Stadium and quickly saw a blown coverage on the west side of the field. He lofted a pass to a wide open Brenton Strange for a touchdown in the south end zone.
Later in the scrimmage, headed in the same direction, Clifford faced pressure from the defense and stepped forward. The redshirt junior stepped forward, eyeing the same side of the field. He saw 1-on-1 coverage and — while contorting his body and jumping off the ground — lobbed up a pass. Cornerback Kalen King came down with the interception.
Those two plays show the contrast in Clifford's play. He can vary from drive to drive and struggles to find consistency. Entering a season with a brand new offense for the third year in a row, Clifford must find that consistency for Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich's offense to succeed in 2021.
Following the practice, Yurcich made note of the need for consistency from his starting quarterback.
"We're working on it," Yurcich said. "I don't want to give you an evaluation right now because we're not where we need to be. But the effort is there, concentration is there, the want-to is there. I don't know where it is, but we're going to continue to work every day. That's the biggest thing. Where can I help him improve? How can I coach him better? How can I get through to him faster to where we're making zero mistakes and he's on point? We're chasing that perfect game."
New OC has good history with QBs: Yurcich knows what that consistency looks like in his quarterbacks. He had it in Zach Zulli at Shippensburg and Mason Rudolph at Oklahoma State. The offensive coordinator helped those quarterbacks reach new heights with his coaching and gave them the tools to succeed.
He took Zulli from a potential special teams ace to a Harlon Hill award winner — the Division II version of the Heisman Trophy — and helped Rudolph win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award — awarded to the nation's top upperclassmen quarterback — and ultimately get drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft.
Clifford has not yet had a season like Yurcich's previous quarterbacks, but could get there if he takes the next step forward. The offensive coordinator sees some of those similarities between Clifford and his past experienced quarterbacks.
"What happens when you play as much as Sean does, and these guys that are experienced guys, they have poise about them," Yurcich said. "They don't get rattled."
Clifford needs to make strides: Clifford will need to make strides in certain areas to earn the same level of success as quarterbacks like Zulli and Rudolph.
The redshirt junior's struggles with consistency can be attributed to smaller problems that lead to inconsistent decision-making, footwork or whatever problem it may be, but those larger problems are fixable and are issues Yurcich believes will be corrected.
"Where he can improve the most is probably just the progressions and anticipation," Yurcich said. "There's a lot new on his plate right now. It's one of those things where you don't know until you get thrown in there and have to feel it. He's just got to get his eyes where they need to be more consistently on every play. But that's going to happen with his work ethic and his determination. He's a smart guy. It's just a matter of time, it's a matter of reps. That's what this spring is all about."
Not enough practice time yet: For Clifford to improve in those areas, he'll need that continued time in practice with Yurcich. The 12 practices he's had isn't nearly enough to be molded into the quarterback Yurcich may envision him to be. He will get plenty of time as spring practice comes to a close and even into fall camp to continue growing as a quarterback and become more consistent.
The redshirt junior, when asked about his consistency, however, said he didn't think it was an issue.
"I feel great throwing right now," Clifford said. "I mean, I feel consistent. It's just the day-to-day, as long as you come in prepared and you take care of your body and you make sure that the day before you're doing the right stuff, it's easy to come in feeling prepared."
Work will continue: Even if Clifford doesn't feel consistency throwing the ball is an issue, it will surely be worked on if Yurcich sees it as an imperfection, based on his comments. The coach and the quarterback will need to continue working on his growth to ensure the offense can reach its peak.
The quarterback didn't want to dissect his own play this spring following the practice, but did express his excitement for what's to come.
"For me personally, I'm not gonna go through myself," Clifford said. "I think from an offensive perspective, I think that we're growing every day. We've installed a lot ... (Yurcich) pushes us to another level. Before, I looked at everything one way, but Coach Yurcich has brought another level of competition, another level of focus, to me and kind of showed me a different side. I'm excited about it, I know he is, and I'm excited just to see how the offense grows from here."