STATE COLLEGE — Sean Clifford’s accumulated numerous banner moments since arriving in Happy Valley.
He threw Penn State’s longest touchdown pass in school history last year, and less than a week ago, the redshirt sophomore became the Nittany Lions' starting quarterback.
However, Penn State’s new signal-caller said his greatest achievement to date is one that speaks to his leadership and reputation among his teammates.
Penn State last week named Clifford one of its eight captains for the 2019 season.
“That’s definitely the biggest accomplishment I’ve had at Penn State, and maybe my life,” Clifford said on Wednesday. “It’s very humbling to me to be given that name by my team. I respect every single person on my team, and I’m very excited to be holding that role with the other seven captains.”
While Clifford’s efforts on the practice field during fall camp further cemented his role as a leader, the seeds were planted far earlier. Following the departure of former Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens to Mississippi State this spring, Clifford addressed his teammates during a meeting with a confidence-inspiring message regarding the Nittany Lions' quarterback situation. He also volunteered to be Penn State’s chapter president for the 2019 Lift for Life event, which ultimately raised $56,018 in the fight against rare diseases this summer.
“Everybody talks about the quarterback being the leader, and this was one thing I saw that was an opportunity, so I went ahead and I took it,” Clifford said at the July event.
Penn State sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth will help ease Clifford into his new role. Freiermuth caught eight touchdowns passes last season and again figures to be an integral part of the Nittany Lion offense. Freiermuth said Clifford’s passing talents were apparent from the moment the tight end arrived on campus.
“Me and Sean obviously were at the threes and fours to begin with, and just kind of throwing the ball with him he had a perfect touch, and he threw it wherever it needed to be,” Freiermuth said. “And that's probably when I realized — summer workouts when I first got here — he's going to be a really good quarterback here and probably our next starter.”
Clifford shared a quarterback room for two years with former Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley. Although McSorley is now with the Baltimore Ravens, examples of his leadership still resonate with Clifford and Penn State’s other quarterbacks. Clifford said he received a congratulatory message from McSorley last week not long after being named the starter.
“When you’re with a guy for two years, especially a guy like Trace, you learn so much,” Clifford said. “I learned a lot about preparation, not only on the field, but off the field. Preparing for the classroom, preparing for leadership roles, preparing for everything.”
For Penn State head coach James Franklin, Clifford’s knowledge of the program tipped the scales in the position battle. Clifford is the only quarterback on Penn State’s roster with college game experience.
“For us, very similar to when we named Trace the starting quarterback, the experience factored in,” Franklin said. “You’ve got an older guy who played in games and really had competed like crazy and had done everything that he needed to do from the time the season ended.”
Clifford will carry five career completions, 195 yards passing and two touchdowns — including the record-breaking 95-yarder to Daniel George against Kent State — into his first career start this Saturday when Penn State hosts Idaho for its season opener. After two seasons of preparation, the moment is finally his. While his name will now be listed atop the depth chart, Clifford said that's about the only thing that will be different for him this weekend. He’s approaching his inaugural start the same way he’s prepared for games since the moment he stepped on campus.
“It’s the same mentality through it all,” Clifford said. “When I was fighting for the third-string spot when I first got here, I was watching the same amount of tape and I was just as hungry as I was back then. Obviously, I have a different role now, but to me, in my eyes, I don’t need to change a thing because I’ve been doing it every single day.”