I was ready for the Tommy Stevens era. The idea of a fifth-year senior who waited his time, showed loyalty to the program, and did whatever was asked of him to finally get the spotlight was as pure a storyline as there can be in college sports. Sure, expectations in Happy Valley for 2019 aren’t as high as they’ve been in year’s past (mostly talking 2017 here), but with the level of talent surrounding Stevens, the chance for the movie-like ending for the fifth-year senior was there.
As we all know now, that ending won’t be happening in Happy Valley, and instead will be taking place elsewhere. Although I wish the Stevens era wasn’t ending before it even started, I can’t say I’m all that disheartened on how Penn State will move forward. Because as one potential chapter closes, another begins — welcome to the Sean Clifford era.
One thing that has always stuck with me about Clifford was the buzz that followed right after he enrolled. It wasn’t buzz about his arm strength, his accuracy, or the way he diagnosed a defense. It was how impressed people were with his intangibles — from his preparation, to the way he competed, to just the way he carried himself. Not to compare the two because they are very different quarterbacks, but another certain quarterback (who will be drafted this weekend) had similar buzz just after he enrolled.
The intangibles are pretty much where the similarities start and end though between Trace McSorley and Clifford, because from a skill perspective on the field, they are very different. I know it’s become a bit of a joke, but Trace legitimately was a Power 5 level athlete as a safety, whereas Clifford didn’t even play defense in high school.
That’s not to say that Clifford is a Morelli-esque statue — he actually moves pretty well in the pocket, and to his credit, has been working on becoming quicker. But it’s safe to say that Clifford isn’t going to rack up the rushing stats, and to Ricky Rahne’s dismay, the QB draw is going to have to be scrapped from the playbook.
Which I think is the thing I’m most intrigued by in all of this — what changes are made to the playbook? With McSorley-to-Stevens, things could largely stay the same. Sure, there would have been tweaks and new wrinkles added, but generally speaking, McSorley and Stevens were pretty interchangeable scheme wise.
With Clifford, that’s not really the case. Like I joked about above, QB draws and heavy zone read calls aren’t going to put Clifford in the best spot to succeed. So not to say an overhaul is coming, but having the option of depending upon the quarterback’s legs are certainly gone.
The fortunate thing: the overall identity of the offense should stay the same because while it’s preferred to have the wrinkle of a sub-4.6 quarterback running the show, a dual-threat quarterback isn’t mandatory to make the Moorhead (Rahne) offense go. In 2014 at Fordham, quarterback Michael Nebrich — coming off a torn ACL — had -96 rushing yards on the season. But yet, the offense still found a way to churn out 40.64 PPG because mobility at quarterback is just a piece of the pie. Other, perhaps larger, pieces of the pie? Making correct reads on RPOs, being accurate, and just flat out knowing the offense.
Can Clifford do those things, and can he grasp the offense to level that’s necessary? I’m not 100% sure, but I like to think he can. And the good news is that James Franklin and Ricky Rahne clearly have confidence in Clifford. If they didn’t, it’s likely that Stevens would have been named the starter last week. But he wasn’t — for a myriad of reasons — and one of those reasons being that Clifford took advantage of his first-team reps this spring. He made the situation difficult, and forced the hands of Tommy Stevens and the coaching staff.
Will Clifford be better than Stevens? Again, I don’t know. No one does yet. But one thing is for sure: the Sean Clifford era has begun in Happy Valley. No matter how it got done, Clifford will take the reigns for the next three seasons during a pivotal moment in Franklin’s tenure.
Is he the quarterback to take Penn State to the next level? We’ll just have to wait and see.