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Where Does Sean Clifford Rank Among College Football Quarterbacks?

Pro Football Focus places the Penn State starter on its "Needs to Improve" list.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford returns for his third season as the team's starter, which should make him among the Big Ten's highest-regarded players. One scouting service, however, considers Clifford still to be a work-in-progress.

Pro Football Focus ranked every starting quarterback in the FBS for 2021, providing Clifford with some extra motivation in the process. PFF listed Clifford at No. 88 among the 130 programs, squarely in the "needs to improve" category.

The quarterbacks in this group, PFF says, "likely aren't leading explosive offenses in 2021." Many of the programs listed in the group are breaking in new starters or haven't yet decided on one. As a third-year Big Ten starter, Clifford certainly stands out on the list.

PFF ranks Clifford 10th among Big Ten quarterbacks, ahead of only Rutgers' Noah Vedral in the East Division. In all, the Big Ten doesn't fare well at quarterback, with just three programs listed among the top 30: Indiana's Michael Penix, Jr. at No. 5, projected Ohio State starter C.J. Stroud at No. 20 and Wisconsin's Graham Mertz at No. 26.

This is a vital season for Penn State and Clifford, who are making offensive changes for the third straight year. Clifford, in his fifth year with the program, is working with his fourth offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich. This is his third offense in as many years.

Yet Clifford said this spring that he has "a lot of optimism" in the new offense and has taken a broad view of his coordinator carousel.

"You can look at it as a bad thing or a good thing, and honestly I see it as a good thing," Clifford said. "... I would say that you'd like to have a little bit of consistency. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve taken advantage of every single person who has walked through this building from an offensive coordinator perspective. I think that it’s going to benefit myself, my teammates and everybody in the long run."

Clifford said he learned plenty from the 2020 season, during which he threw more interceptions (nine in nine games) than he did in 2019 (seven in 12 games). His quarterback rating fell nearly 10 points (to 137.4), and Clifford was benched for one start, against Iowa, in favor of former teammate Will Levis.

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Yet Clifford called the two weeks surrounding that Iowa game, in which he ultimately played a relief role, "definitely one of the best experiences I've had in football."

"I kind of grew up more last year, and it really taught me a lot of lessons about life in general," Clifford said. "And looking back on when I got benched, I’m really proud of the way that I handled it personally and I’m very thankful for my teammates as well, because they had my back through it all.

"It was definitely a challenge to be benched on national television for everybody to see. It takes a lot out of you, because you’re that guy. You want to lead your team, you want to be there for everybody. And then the one week you don’t have that opportunity, it kind of hurts. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But at the same time, I knew that I had to be there for my teammates, and for Will especially."

Clifford has spent this offseason in a training program designed to make him "bulletproof," according to Penn State strength coach Dwight Galt. The program was designed for improved performance as much as injury prevention, Galt said.

"Sean has just achieved some really good things in the weight room," Galt said during the spring. "He benches 350 [pounds], he’s a 300-pound cleaner [the power clean], he squatted just short of 500. And you guys know my philosophy of training quarterbacks. It's a quarterback-slash-running back. We’ve had great success with our quarterbacks making plays with their legs, and that’s something that’s been near and dear to me. It's not just the traditional, 'watch the shoulder, they’ve got to throw.' I have to make sure that the body can handle any expectation we have on the field.

"So I just kind of took him to the next level. He’s almost 23, he’s got a great foundation. I really wanted to focus on a lot of unilateral, one-leg, one-arm type of things with him for stability. Things like that, not only to help to prevent injury but also to improve his performance. One leg was very close but not quite as strong as the other, so we corrected that. So it’s been kind of a different approach."

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