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Penn State Deserves a Quarterback Competition This Offseason

Sean Clifford has earned the job before. Having to win it again might be the best thing for him.

Penn State's quarterback room went from incomplete to fascinating in January, as nationally ranked prospects Drew Allar and Beau Pribula went from recruits to freshmen.

Allar and Pribula were among nine freshmen in Penn State's 2022 recruiting class who enrolled early and will be available for spring drills. The question is, will they get a real chance to compete for the starting job in 2022 and materialize one of coach James Franklin's four core values: Compete in everything you do.

It's an intriguing idea, because this might be the most talented quarterback room Franklin has assembled at Penn State.

Sean Clifford: Penn State's first sixth-year quarterback and likely its first four-year captain, Clifford returns as perhaps the most experienced player in Penn State history. He'll be 24 when the season begins, older than some graduate assistants, with a chance to become the program's first 10,000-yard passer.

Christian Veilleux: The freshman played a pretty sharp game, all things considered, in the Lions' 28-0 victory over Rutgers, demonstrating an arm strength that Clifford doesn't possess. Veilleux played briefly in the Outback Bowl — after Clifford was removed for medical reasons, according to Franklin — but still preserved his redshirt, leaving him with four years of eligibility.

Drew Allar: The "cornerstone" of Penn State's 2022 recruiting class, according to SI's John Garcia, Jr., Allar is the highest-ranked quarterback Franklin has recruited to Penn State. Ohio's "Mr. Football" threw for an astonishing 4,444 yards and 48 touchdowns as a senior at Medina High and arrived at Penn State after starting in the All-American Bowl.

Beau Pribula: Another freshman early enrollee, Pribula is a two-time all-state quarterback in Pennsylvania and was named player of the year in the state's biggest division in 2020. Pribula was responsible for 42 touchdowns as a senior, throwing for 33.

There's something for every coach in that room, from the seen-it-all starter to exceptional young talent to mold. And Franklin should be pointing to his core values to say, "Everyone has a chance."

In reality, he's probably hedging. Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich welcomed Clifford for a sixth season, citing the quarterback's experience, knowledge of the offense and leadership skills. Clifford possesses a big locker-room personality and is eager to become a mentor to Allar and Pribula, just as he did to Veilleux.

"I think Sean does as good as any quarterback I've been around in college in terms of how to prepare, how to watch film, how he studies the game and studies defenses," Franklin said. "I think that's going to be really valuable for these two quarterbacks. I think, obviously, also with Veilleux's experience that he was able to gain last year, we're in a healthy position at the quarterback spot with those two guys."

Those two guys, along with Veilleux, should be more than students, though. Clifford struggled to one of his worst games at Penn State in the Outback Bowl, completing a season-low 43.8 percent of his passes and throwing two interceptions.

While that game didn't define Clifford's season, it did activate a few indicator lights that the quarterback has reached his threshold. A healthy Clifford is most likely to start the opener at Purdue in September. That shouldn't mean Clifford holds the job in perpetuity.

Veilleux, Allar and Pribula enter the season in exceptional positions. Veilleux moved from the No. 3 to No. 2 spot during the regular season, made the most of his one start and gave the Lions a viable backup.

Allar is the recruiting prodigy with the size (6-5, 225 pounds), tools and savvy to be a freshman starter. Franklin recognizes that, though he suggests bringing along the quarterback methodically.

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"He’s a big kid who can stand in the pocket and deliver the ball," Franklin said. "I think people underestimated his athleticism as well. He does a great job making some of the plays that maybe aren't in the playbook in terms of extending plays and off-balance throws with unbelievable accuracy. You know, [he has] play-making ability."

Further, the head coach won't overlook Pribula, for whom he has high expectations. During Penn State's Signing Day ceremony, Franklin made quite the comparison.

"You’re the total package," Franklin told Pribula. "You know how I feel about Trace McSorley and how he handled his career. No disrespect to Trace, but I think you’ve got a chance to do things Trace wasn’t able to do."

All three will have the buffer of a veteran to guide them but also should be the keynote quarterbacks this spring. Clifford likely, and rightfully, will watch this spring as those three quarterbacks get all the practice reps. Clifford probably shouldn't even be in uniform for the April Blue-White Game. Leave that to Veilleux, Allar and Pribula.

As a three-year starter, Clifford has the wisdom of knowing his way around the preparation process. And he understands the inherent advantage, having already learned his lesson.

"Because the minute that you walk in, the stars disappear, and it's really what you do on the field," Clifford said. "That's what it was for me when I got here. You know, I thought that I was something out of high school, and then you come here and you've got Trace McSorely and you're battling and when our workouts and he's beating your ass. So it's one of those things where we can talk stars and class and all that but, once you get here, you have to prove it."

Yes, they do. Still, Veilleux, Allar and Pribula deserve a real chance to try. It will engage them with the offense, particularly the true freshmen, more effectively and might refresh the starter as well.

But will Franklin deliver one? Here's what he said in December about the prospect.

"Like a pitcher in baseball that can dominate games, quarterbacks have the ability to do that as well," Franklin said. "I think college football has probably become even more quarterback-centric than maybe it was 10-15 years ago. The NFL has been like that for a long time.

"So what I want to try to do is support Drew as much as we possibly can and Beau throughout this entire process. I think Sean coming back helps because I think we want to find that fine line of how do we get these guys ready and develop them but also not put too much pressure on them that comes with the type of rankings and ratings that they have."

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