Here’s the thing with Sean Clifford, and it’s the same thing that goes for just about every other young, uber-talented quarterback who is on the doorstep of his first chance at being the guy in a major program this fall:
On nights like Friday, he’s going to say all the right things, show off just the right combination of humility and swagger, to get you dreaming about championships.
And in summers like this, his coaches and teammates are going to back him up with piles of praise and heaps of hyperbole and exude so much confidence in his knowledge of the offense and ability as a leader and a thrower that it’s going to sound like there’s not going to be much of a transition at all from a legend like Trace McSorley to the next man in line.
“He loves to compete,” senior linebacker Jan Johnson will tell you. “He’s definitely confident. He’s an extremely hard worker. He doesn’t like to lose at anything, even simple drill stuff we’re doing.”
Then sophomore running back Ricky Slade will double down, “When Cliff steps in, you know he’s going to do his thing. There’s not going to be any drop-off...we’re still going to be high-powered, fast, putting up points.”
Sooner rather than later though, the time for talking will end. Guys like Micah Parsons and Yetur Gross-Matos will have him in their sights during practices next month. Then, come September and October, Damar Hamlin will look to pick him off in the Pitt game, and Big Ten sack leader A.J. Epenesa will strive to drop him a few times for the glory of old Iowa, and Michigan’s brilliant defensive coordinator Don Brown will draw up some confusing, innovate scheme to slow him down.
In the minutes leading up to Friday’s Lift For Life at Holuba Hall, Clifford met with the media for the first time since senior Tommy Stevens announced his transfer to Mississippi State in May. It went as expected. Calm. Cool. Collected. Confident.
Coaches insist there will be QB competition: Both head coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne insist this will be an open competition, that perhaps as many as four youngsters can win the starting job once camp ends in August. But let’s face it: Clifford was the quarterback standing in front of the horde Friday. Not Will Levis. Not true freshmen Michael Johnson Jr. or Ta’Quan Roberson. This is his job to lose. He knows it, and in fact, he never mentioned having to survive an August competition during more than 10 minutes worth of questions.
Doesn’t mean there won’t be a competition. Just that, he expects he’s going to win it.
“How ready am I?” Clifford said, repeating one of the more common questions posed to him Friday. “Very. This is the most confident and most ready I’ve ever been in my life to play this position.”
Perhaps the most important thing that came from this first meeting was, he knew what’s expected, and that he also knows what lies ahead.
There’s something real about Clifford. Something easy to grasp that might not be so easy to understand.
Hyperbole vs. reality: This is not like 2016, when McSorley took over for Christian Hackenberg, back when McSorley was just a too-short sophomore-to-be with questionable arm strength who had one good quarter of college football action on his resumé. Difficult to believe guys like that can be great just by listening to them insist they will fit right in. The reason a dozen photos and autographs will be the price of a brisk walk down College Avenue for McSorley the rest of his life is because he backed that talk up.
The reason to believe Clifford might just back that up is because he knows the difference between the hyperbole and the reality. He knows he is a guy who has posted eye-grabbing numbers, knows that his 399.71 passer rating as a backup last season — a whopping 68.8 percent higher than McSorley’s rating — looks more like a typographical error on a stat sheet than it does reality. He knows he threw the longest touchdown pass in school history last season, the 95-yard bomb to Daniel George against Kent State. He knew that he averaged 39 yards per pass during the regular season, and that none of his passes so much as touched the ground until the Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky.
But, he didn’t mention any of that, either.
“It was a lot of garbage minutes,” Clifford acknowledged. “It’s definitely different now. You’re in practice then, not getting hit. My first practice now, I’m getting knocked back, and that’s obviously a big difference. It’s just going to be getting used to it.”
Looking to prove doubters wrong: There’s going to be a lot to get used to with the Penn State offense in 2019, a season when the defense is expected to be as fast and explosive and dominant as it has perhaps this entire decade. If Penn State is going to improve on its four-loss 2018 and disappointing defeat in the Citrus Bowl, it needs the offense to do its part. It needs what Slade insists it will have, no drop-off under center.
“With Trace leaving, and Miles (Sanders) and (Ryan) Bates and (Connor) McGovern on offense, everyone has been kind of writing us off,” star tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “But I think we’re ready to prove the whole country wrong. ... The quarterbacks have kind of led our offense into a great path right now, and I think you guys are going to be shocked and surprised by how fast and explosive we’re going to be.”
That’s either premature, brash talk from a young player who should learn to temper his emotions.
Or, it’s a forecast from someone who understands something nobody outside his circle does.
For Penn State to be what Freiermuth says it can on offense, Sean Clifford is going to have to be as good as McSorley was throughout his career. Or, better. And soon, we’ll all know if that’s possible.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.