Those who have followed the history of Penn State football understand the significance of the number 14.
Todd Blackledge and John Shaffer, the school’s two national championship-winning quarterbacks, both wore No. 14. As did former stars Chuck Fusina, a Heisman runner-up, and Wally Richardson, who went 20-5 in his time as a starter.
The latest quarterback to don the number 14 is redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford. Clifford, who cemented himself as the Nittany Lions starter following a strong spring and the transfer of formerly assumed incumbent Tommy Stevens, will need to every bit the signal caller that four aforementioned stars were if James Franklin is to see out his vision for the program.
If 2016 was the defining year for Franklin’s tenure thus far at Penn State, 2019 may well be the redux.
The Nittany Lions have recruited as well as any team in the Big Ten over the last four seasons and have cemented themselves as one of the nation’s top 20 or so programs. But after what some would call a disappointing 2018 season, the program may well have taken a slight step back.
Franklin’s “Dominate the State” motto could well be put on trial Friday when Julian Fleming, a top-10 recruit nationwide who grew up in and plays his high school football just 90 minutes from State College at Penn State crazed Southern Columbia, makes his commitment.
Fleming was a longtime Penn State lean who now is expected to pledge his commitment to rival Ohio State. While nothing is set in stone until signing day, a recruiting win for the Buckeyes would certainly raise some eyebrows around Pennsylvania.
Insert Mr. Clifford.
In his (very) limited snaps for Penn State, the Cincinnati native has impressed and even garnered himself a mock Heisman campaign.
Coaches and teammates have spoken highly of Clifford, who figures to man the Penn State for multiple years barring an absurd breakout year in 2019.
The 2019 edition of the Nittany Lions figure to be stout on defense, and Clifford will be spoiled for choice when it comes to talent at the skill positions. Ultimately, though, the team’s success will likely come down to the performance of Clifford.
A four-star prospect out of the high school, the new Penn State gunslinger has shown the ability to hurt opponents with both his arm and legs. While he may not be quite as mobile as his predecessor, Clifford’s arm talent is undeniable and he seems to possess a certain swagger that all of the most successful quarterbacks seem to have.
Penn State recently announced $69 million worth of upgrades to its football facilities and administrators, boosters and coaches alike will surely expect the product on the field to mirror the increased investment.
In order to do so, Penn State will need to continue to recruit at a high level and much of that depends on the perception of the program. That perception, very simply, is tied to on-field success. Anything short of a double-digit win season in 2019 would make it very difficult for the Nittany Lions to keep up with Ohio States and Michigans of the college football world.
So, back to Clifford. His time at the helm of the Penn State offense comes at pivotal point for the Nittany Lions. His success is important for offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. It’s important for James Franklin, and it’s vitally important for the regional and national perception of the program and where it stands in the college football landscape.
In 2019 and potentially well beyond, the Nittany Lions will go as Sean Clifford goes, for better or worse.