STATE COLLEGE – Last December, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford answered questions from reporters in one of the locker rooms at AT&T Stadium as he and Penn State prepped for the Cotton Bowl.
Earlier that morning, Penn State announced the hire of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Clifford didn’t hesitate to express his excitement with the former Minnesota play-caller’s addition.
After nine months with Ciarrocca, the biggest sticking point about Ciarrocca's style has been his attention to detail.
“When you watch the tape, I think you see an offense that is very detailed-oriented,” Clifford said last week. “When you get to know Coach Ciarrocca, you get to understand why.”
Clifford elaborated with a real-world example.
“If he wants you to run your route at the third inside step, he wants you to run the route at third inside,” Clifford explained. “If it’s (the) second or fourth, he’s going to get on you. I think coach has done a great job. I keep going back to the details, but that’s kind of been the name of the game with this offense.”
Clifford brings a 10-2 record and a New Year’s Six bowl win into his second year as Penn State’s starting quarterback.
The redshirt junior threw for 2,654 yards and tallied 23 touchdown passes against seven interceptions last season and he added another 402 yards rushing and five touchdowns. He suffered a leg injury in the second half of Penn State’s loss to Ohio State and missed the Nittany Lions’ regular-season finale against Rutgers.
Clifford’s and Ciarrocca’s opportunity to learn together on the practice field this spring and summer was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Ciarrocca was still able to teach his offense to his new quarterback through virtual means and quizzes.
Now that the duo is back on the practice field, Ciarrocca said the things Clifford learned over the past few months have started to jell.
“We’ve spent so much time meeting and talking about this process, the pre-snap thinking we want to do and applying it to the plays, and I think he’s probably really been able to see since we’ve started to (practice) here again, really how it all works and why it is that we want to think a certain way about these certain plays,” Ciarrocca said.
For Penn State coach James Franklin, a former college quarterback at East Stroudsburg University, the next step for Clifford is growing more into the role, which he said comes with the experience of playing.
“Some quarterbacks have a glaring weakness in one area, and you say, ‘This is the obvious area that we need to get better in,’ and I think for Sean, it’s just continuing to grow in his total development a little bit better really in each area,” Franklin said. “I think that naturally comes with age, maturity and experience, and I think he and Coach Ciarrocca have clicked, so that helps.”
Clifford enters Year Two cemented as the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback. Unlike last season, he’ll carry 12 games’ worth of experience into Penn State’s late-October season opener at Indiana.
“We all know the talent that we have, and we all know the capabilities that we can have this season,” Clifford said. “But it’s all about the work ethic and what we’re going to do day in and day out to get there.”