Five Players to Watch in 2019: #2 Sean Clifford
In a five-part series, I will count down the top five Penn State football players I am excited to watch for the 2019 season. With such a young team filled with potential, this list was difficult to make. Let’s check out the likely signal caller for the Nittany Lion offense this year.
Replacing a Legend
It’s not easy to replace legends, but Penn State will have to do just that in 2019 as they find a replacement for QB Trace McSorley. Certainly McSorley’s successor will not be asked to do as much as the record-setting QB did when he wore blue and white. But, the Nittany Lions will be looking for a signal caller to lead them back to a Big Ten Championship, much like McSorley did back in 2016. There is no definite starter named yet, but after Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State in the spring, Sean Clifford appears to be the heir apparent to McSorley and he is my number two player to watch for 2019.
Coming to Happy Valley from Enemy Territory
Sean Clifford came to the program out of Cincinnati, Ohio as a highly heralded recruit. According to 247Sports, Clifford was a four-star prospect and the eighth-best pro style QB in the 2017 class. He also was a finalist at the Elite 11 QB Camp and won the most accurate passer award at the event. However, when he came to Penn State, he used his red shirt as both McSorley and Stevens were way ahead of him on the QB depth chart.
Getting His Chance
Last year, Clifford remained the third QB on the depth chart behind both McSorley and Stevens. But, with the injury to Tommy Stevens, Clifford became the back up. This allowed the 6’2″ QB to come in during mop-up duty and show the coaches his abilities in a game situation. He did just that in several situations throughout the season.
Sean Clifford appeared in the 51-6 blowout win against Pittsburgh. In the game, he threw a 34-yard touchdown pass on his first career pass attempt as a part of the big victory. The next week against Kent State, he made Penn State history. He completed a 95-yard touchdown pass to WR Daniel George, breaking a school-record for longest play from scrimmage, a record that stood since 1919. In that game, he completed each of his three passes and compiled 117 passing yards. Then, against Illinois just a week later, Clifford converted a 44-yard pass play in his only passing attempt of the night.
Following the Illinois game, Tommy Stevens made his return and became the backup to Trace McSorley once again. Even as McSorley and Stevens dealt with the injury bug in the second half of the season, Clifford did not appear in a game until the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. In that game, the Ohio native came into the game with the Nittany Lions trailing. He delivered one pass that was about as perfect as it could get down field. However, as was a theme in 2018, De’Andre Thompkins dropped the pass, decimating the big play opportunity. From there, Trace McSorley came back into the game and led the Lions on a ferocious comeback that fell just short.
What to Expect from Clifford in 2019?
What we know about Sean Clifford is big results in very small doses. Accuracy does not seem to be a question. He obviously had strong accuracy in high school as he won the Elite 11 accuracy award and that seems to have followed him to Happy Valley. Although it is a small sample size, all of his passes in games have been right on the money.
In my personal opinion, accuracy is the most important attribute a QB can have. Accuracy at quarterback means having the ability to fit the ball into tight windows. Or it means the ability to put the ball in an ideal spot to allow a receiver to gain yards after the catch. The best QBs in the NFL have the ability to fit the ball into tight windows and that’s what makes them great. Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger among others all have that great ability. Even looking at recent college greats, Baker Mayfield always threw passes with precision and accuracy to his receivers. Dwayne Haskins led a comeback against the Lions at Beaver Stadium last year by being accurate when it mattered most and allowed his receivers to catch balls in positions where they could make big plays after the catch.
I don’t expect Sean Clifford to be an NFL Hall of Famer or Heisman trophy winner just yet. But, his throwing accuracy certainly has me excited to watch him this year. Where at times last year the offense felt muddled because of an over reliance on big plays, I think this years offense could be a much more consistent and flowing attack because of Clifford’s ability to be extremely accurate. That is not to throw criticism at Trace McSorley, but his game was centered around creating big plays. And, when the receivers were having problems with drops last year, the offense just did not flow as well as it did in years past.
One part of Clifford’s game that is certainly a question mark is his mobility. Trace McSorley bailed Penn State out of many situations throughout his career by using his legs to pick up first downs and avoid sacks, as well. Clifford was listed as a pro-style QB by recruiting services in high school. However, he did get recruited when Joe Moorhead was still on staff, which leads me to believe he does have some sort of ability to use his legs. Will his legs be up to Trace McSorley’s standards? I don’t think so. But, going by some video, Clifford does have the ability to move in the pocket and make some plays with his legs.
Overall, I am honestly very excited about Sean Clifford as the new Penn State QB. I loved Trace McSorley and he will certainly be missed. But, I think Clifford has a ton of potential that is just waiting to be seen on the big stage. Most notably, his ability to throw passes with high-level accuracy will allow this Penn State offense to be much more consistent in 2019 than it was in 2018. It won’t be easy stepping into McSorley’s legendary shoes, but I think Sean Clifford will prove that he is one of the best QB’s in the Big Ten and throughout the country by season’s end.
For Wednesday’s article on my number three Player to Watch, click here.
For Tuesday’s article on my number four Player to Watch, click here.
For Monday’s article on my number five Player to Watch, click here.
For today’s Penn State’s Prey: Ohio State, click here.
Stay tuned tomorrow as I reveal my number one Player to Watch for 2019!