Sean Clifford's decision to return to Penn State will have sizable impact on program

JASON MACKEY
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes while being pressured by Rutgers defensive lineman Aaron Lewis (71) during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Penn State won 28-0. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Sean Clifford didn't have to look far when sifting through reasons to stay at Penn State for a sixth and final season.

The Nittany Lions quarterback could have turned his attention 2 1/2 hours west, where Pitt's Kenny Pickett made the same decision a year earlier, then played his way into the Heisman Trophy field and possibly the first round of the NFL draft.

Clifford could have also thought back to the second quarter at Iowa, when Penn State's offense crumbled under the direction of former backup Ta'Quan Roberson, a clear-as-day indicator of the starter's value to his team.

More than anything, though, Clifford's decision never left the quarterbacks room inside the Lasch Football Building. For the first time during his Penn State tenure, he'd have the same offensive coordinator ( Mike Yurcich) in successive years. Clifford could also help shape the future of the program by mentoring Class of 2022 quarterbacks Drew Allar and Beau Pribula.

"A lot of people were wondering whether taking a sixth year was a tough decision," Clifford said. "But in the end, I love football, and I want to keep playing football for as long as possible."

A sizable impact: The same for Pickett, Clifford's decision will have a sizable impact on Penn State's program, both in the short- and long-term.

Most immediately, Penn State (7-5) can count on Clifford for the Outback Bowl against No. 22 Arkansas, an important component considering its top receiving threat, Jahan Dotson, could very well opt-out of the New Year's Day game and to focus on his future.

It's also notable that the Razorbacks (8-4) allowed the fifth-fewest passing yards per game (215.1) in the SEC this past season and the fifth-most on the ground (156.3) — meaning Clifford's right arm is likely the weapon the Nittany Lions need most.

As a third-year starter this season, Clifford has thrown for 2,912 yards and 20 touchdowns with just six interceptions.

Penn State had no shot against the Hawkeyes once Clifford left in the second quarter with an undisclosed injury. Things weren't much better the next week against Illinois when Clifford was clearly hobbled, the Nittany Lions ran for just 62 yards on 29 carries, and the Cincinnati native posted his fourth-lowest quarterback rating of the season.

That's certainly not a criticism of Clifford. It's more evidence that the Nittany Lions, who have not had a 100-yard rusher this season, clearly need their quarterback to drive the train.

"I'm excited about him coming back," running back Noah Cain said. "I'm excited about the impact he's going to have for this team next year."

Continuity with Yurcich helps: So is Clifford, who should probably receive college credit for the extra learning he's had to do while cycling through offensive coordinators Joe Moorhead, Ricky Rahne and Kirk Ciarrocca in previous years before finally getting to stick with Yurcich.

The importance of continuity is not a college football-specific concept, but actually having a dose of it "was definitely one of the most appealing things and factors that played into" the decision to return, Clifford said.

Too many times throughout his career, Clifford has been unable to watch film from the previous season and dissect a certain play because it no longer exists, carried away by the man who designed it. He and others must spend their time learning something new. There's also been relationship-building and learning tendencies with a new play-caller, the same for anyone feeling out a new boss.

All of it has stalled progress instead of helping the offense evolve.

"Being able to see that and talk through that with coach Yurcich for another year is gonna be outstanding and benefit a lot of people," Clifford said.

Self-evaluation: The biggest beneficiary will obviously be Clifford himself. Yurcich said he mostly left Clifford alone and didn't "try to recruit or influence him." The former California (Pa.) quarterback told Clifford he wanted him back but trusted he'd make a decision with mutual benefit.

Clifford's evolution has been most obvious with self-scouting, Yurcich said, describing that as the ability to watch video of his performance, good and bad, and arrive at meetings armed with solutions. That shifts the focus to improvement rather than dwelling on what went wrong.

"You have to self-correct at times," Yurcich said. "He's getting to expert level at that stuff."

Helping Allar and Pribula: It's a place where Allar and Pribula — a pair of talented understudies, especially the former — will live once arriving on campus, where they'll be free to pick Clifford's brain in a way not always allowed with coaches.

Peppering Clifford with questions will also be mixed with watching how the veteran signal-caller carries himself, from academics, to health and nutrition, to reads that he makes on specific plays.

"I'm excited for Sean," linebacker Jesse Luketa said. "[Clifford returning] will allow [Allar and Pribula] to progress tremendously and know they're gonna have a good transition."

The Pickett example: The possibilities for Clifford's return are certainly fascinating when you look across the state. Pickett threw for 7,984 yards and 39 touchdowns in 39 games over four seasons before deciding to return in 2021, leading Pitt to an ACC title and its best season in decades.

Clifford will enter 2022 with 7,644 yards and 61 touchdowns in 37 career games through the air.

One had nothing to do with the other, Clifford insisted. Even though they're friends and Clifford was impressed by the bet on himself Pickett clearly won, he's simply trying to run his own race.

"I had to look at my decision as my decision," Clifford said. "I'm not Kenny Pickett. Kenny Pickett isn't Sean Clifford. You can't make decisions off of other college athletes. You have to do what's smart for you.

"Football is what I love to do. That's why I'm here again."