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Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford still most important Nittany Lion this spring

DONNIE COLLINS
The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice (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)

My favorite part of Penn State's football offseason since leaving the Outback Bowl in January has to be the misguided hope that something that has no chance of happening ultimately will.

"I just hope," I've heard more often these past few months than I care to count, "the coaches let this be a true quarterback competition. Like, play the best guy, no matter who it is."

As if they convinced Sean Clifford to come back for a sixth season in the program to compete with a true sophomore who has played about one full game since 2019, or two kids straight out of high school.

As if, had head coach James Franklin insisted on that "true quarterback competition" himself, Clifford wouldn't clearly surpass sophomore Christian Veilleux or true freshmen Drew Allar and Beau Pribula anyway.

When Penn State opened spring practice last week, it did so under a low-hovering cloud of irony. The position Nittany Lions fans want addressed most stood as maybe the only one in camp where there would be no true competition this spring. For a fourth consecutive season, Clifford is the man. The youngsters behind him are there to learn.

And, it's a pretty good plan with only one tangible drawback: A general lack of overall understanding about how the quarterback position is played — and developed — at the highest levels of football.

Drew Allar mania: During Penn State's annual Pro Day on Thursday at Holuba Hall, I noticed Allar taking in the atmosphere from the sideline just a few feet in front of me, spinning a football in his hands, looking at that pigskin almost lovingly. So, I snapped a photo and shared it on my Twitter account.

Within hours, it drew hundreds of likes and tens of thousands of impressions. It's just a snapshot. But, considering what the guy who just turned 18 and whose high school classmates are thinking about prom and the spring sports season back in Medina, Ohio, means to Penn State's program, it made some sense. He rated as no worse than the second- or third-best quarterback prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, and many of the nation's top talent evaluators had him at the very top of that list.

Programs like Penn State don't get this kind of a prospect, at the most important position on the field, often. The temptation is always going to be, play him. See where it goes.

But behind him, Clifford dropped dimes in route-running drills to receiver Jahan Dotson, the potential first-round NFL Draft pick working out in front of scouts from all 32 NFL teams. Of course, that means nothing when September comes and the chinstraps get fastened and Michigan and Ohio State come calling. It's a moment that told a story.

Certainly that will be Allar throwing to NFL hopefuls, someday. But it can't be now. Not if Franklin and the Nittany Lions want to build a lasting winner.

Lions have great QB situation: This is a statement you don't hear often, but at this moment in college football history, it's true: There aren't many Power 5 football programs that have as good a quarterback situation as Penn State.

It's easy to credit the presence of those young signal-callers everyone is so excited about for that. Allar is a potential generational prospect for the program. Pribula is a winner who has a big arm, good speed and quickness and a Trace McSorley-like determination. Veilleux has a collegiate performance under his belt, albeit against Rutgers, that rated pretty close to a masterpiece for a true freshman hustled in off the bench.

It's as deep a room as Penn State has had in decades. It's the exact type of structure Franklin has been trying to build since Justin Fields decommitted from the 2017 class and went to Georgia.

Clifford is the reason the situation is so good, though.

Clifford has warts, but he's the best man for the job: Not that he doesn't have his warts. Not that fans who want to argue that he played poorly in the most important game he played (the 2019 loss to Minnesota), or that he turned the ball over far too often in 2020, or that he shouldn't have played hurt against Illinois last season, don't have a good point. Not that he's more of an NFL prospect than the guys behind him, because he's not.

Consider how much institutional knowledge Clifford brings, though. How many other young quarterbacks are going to get to learn this season from a senior who has thrown more than 1,000 career passes for more than 7,800 yards? Someone who has played in a New Year's Six bowl game? Someone who has been through as many ups and downs and twists and turns, played through injuries, seen so many star players come and go, so many assistant coaches come and go?

Maybe he's not an NFL player, but Clifford certainly can be a quarterbacks coach someday, if that's the career path he chooses. NCAA rules might prohibit Penn State's actual quarterbacks coach, Mike Yurcich, from being around his young quarterbacks as much as he'd like to be. But Clifford can be the extension for him that this staff needs, and he can be around them as often as he possibly can be, passing all that knowledge on.

Time to leave a legacy: None of this means Penn State shouldn't use the spring to prepare Veilleux, Allar and Pribula to play. But they shouldn't start unless Clifford shows he can't. This is his time to set an example, his time to leave a legacy at Penn State. He's the most important player in camp this spring.

This is still his team, and if the future at the quarterback position turns out as bright as Penn State fans think, they'll talk about the value of recruiting the very best. But really they'll have Sean Clifford's work this season to thank.