At 23, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is a team elder, a status he absorbs in many ways.
As a fifth-year senior, Clifford is playing in his fourth offense for his fourth coordinator. Like most elders, Clifford says he doesn't understand TikTok. And like any good veteran quarterback, Clifford made finding a sponsor for his weekly dinner with the offensive line among his first missions regarding name, image and likeness opportunities.
(Clifford recently struck a deal with The Field, a popular State College restaurant that named a sandwich after Penn State coach James Franklin.)
"If I wanted to take my offensive line out last year, I would have had to buy them food out of my stipend money," Clifford said. "Which, to be honest with you, hurt. A lot."
But even with all that accumulated wisdom and experience, Clifford simultaneously is feeling invigorated. He has channeled something new in his short time with offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, something that has him encouraged about the 2021 season.
At 23, in year five of college, Clifford said he might even feel reborn.
"I definitely feel like I’m playing at a pretty high level, and [Yurcich] has brought a lot of good out of me, things that I never thought I could do," Clifford said. "... This is just the beginning. I'm trying to break my ceiling and go even higher each and every day."
Clifford has laid to rest his uneven 2020 season, one in which he regressed under a stressed offensive installation, a losing streak and a tendency to freight all of it entirely on his shoulders.
Still, that season trails him. Pro Football Focus placed Clifford at No. 88 in its college quarterback rankings, squarely in the "needs improvement" category. Asked this week to describe what he learned from 2020, Clifford said, "I will not be talking about last season anymore."
"Obviously, as an entire organization, we had some challenges last year," Franklin said. "That was an opportunity for all of us to grow and evolve. And I know Sean has as well, and I'm looking forward to watching him play this year."
Clifford spent this offseason studying Yurcich's offenses at Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Texas. He made calls to fellow quarterbacks, including the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mason Rudolph, who threw for 13,618 yards and 92 touchdowns in four seasons under Yurcich at Oklahome State. Clifford also caught some time with several Mannings at the Manning Passing Academy.
Clifford views all that as prelude and prep to a breakthrough season. And Yurcich has plenty to do with that.
"I’ve learned from four coaches how to play football in different ways," Clifford said. "I appreciate all the coaches who have come through Penn State. I've learned a lot from them. I've taken the good and the bad and learned from it.
"And I feel like coach Yurcich is definitely bringing out a new player. He's definitely pushing me to a new level and he's making me a better version of Sean Clifford, who I feel the team's happy to see, and I'm happy to see myself."
In Clifford, Yurcich sees a fresh piece of clay to remold into a successful Big Ten quarterback. Yurcich's most significant criticism of his quarterbacks centers on consistency, meaning he's not seeing it.
Clifford has the intangible qualities — experience, study habits, leadership — and now has to rebuild the technical skills around them. And he has to do that consistently.
"I think he can get a lot better," Yurcich said. "So that’s my job: to help him along, to guide him and to give him the information that he needs and to continue to press upon the things that he has to improve upon and apply pressure where it needs to be in practice. Give him difficult looks, allow him to fail and figure it out, and then continue to build his confidence up. I think that’s the process of learning."
A supremely confident quarterback, Clifford breaks down his assets like this: "I have a lot of wisdom. I've played a lot of snaps here, so I've seen a lot of looks. And I've just played a lot of football, seen a lot of tape, and done a lot of research. So I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of everything."
Yurcich is tasked with piecing all those elements together to assemble a successful Big Ten quarterback.
"Sean’s all about helping this team win," Yurcich said. "He’s willing to do whatever it takes, so therefore, you've just got to try to help him. You have to guide him and help him get where he wants to be. And he wants to be great, so whatever that takes."