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Lessons learned: Tempo, defense, King all good; Clifford’s consistency, backup QB remain issues

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Sean Clifford

While I’ll start with the usual disclaimer that we shouldn’t take the spring game too seriously in the grand scheme of things, there were several things that came out of Penn State’s scrimmage Saturday that were very important to keep in mind for later this year. Both good and bad.

Good: I LOVE the tempo offense we got to see on a number of plays early, primarily with Sean Clifford at QB. Look, we all know that new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich likes to use tempo, so it will become a big, big part of the offense. But we couldn’t have been very sure that we would see any of it in the spring game, and indeed we did.

The tempo component is a game changer for the Penn State offense, because it’s pretty much imperative that offenses be able to play at a fast pace when need be if they’re going to take maximum advantage of defenses at times. Sure, the 2016 PSU offense was explosive and never used tempo, but that team had Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki, so it’s hard to compare that outstanding personnel with any other.

I personally got a little tired of seeing all the standing around and waiting for the coordinator to look over the field and call a play, and yet never, ever using tempo. We can now expect a good mix of the two.

Yurcich gave an excellent answer when asked about the advantages of going tempo:

“Benefits of going fast, you’re really eliminating the amount of defensive communication. You’d be surprised to know how much those guys communicate to one another, from D-line to the will linebacker, depending on the formation, back to the safety. It makes them play right and left, if they’re fielding boundary corner, it eliminates the ability for them to substitute, which is very important. It also wears them out and tires them out. It tires your own guys out, as well, and you’ve got to know where to attack and who’s fresh and who’s gassed, and those sorts of things.

“So it allows you to lock them into a personnel grouping if you want them in. Say for example you’re third and long and they sub in an extra defensive back and you get a first down. Well, if you get a first down, they have to play a first-and-10 and maybe you’re calling a run play, they have to know how to fit that run with an extra defensive back. So sometimes you’re getting an advantage from there, sometimes it’s just eliminating the amount of communication, and sometimes you’re wearing their butt out.”

Good: The quarterback went UNDER CENTER! Hip hip, hooray!

I know, I’ve made a big deal out of this in recent years, and maybe some fans don’t give a rip. And no, going under center isn’t the biggest thing in the world.

But what has ALWAYS bothered me was the ridiculous stubbornness shown by recent offensive coordinators to ever even think about going under center. Or using a fullback or tempo, for that matter. As I’ve written repeatedly, any coach who flat out refuses to ever try something that just might work is being ridiculous, because it makes you wonder just what else he might be so stubborn against trying, even if it might work.

Bad: Clifford fumbled his first snap under center. Because, you know, that was ironically inevitable.

I had someone suggest something interesting on Twitter — that Clifford fumbled on purpose. LOL. I don’t know, man, this seems just diabolical enough to be somewhat reasonable!

Bad: I didn’t particularly like how Clifford played. He looked like the same quarterback to me, an average and inconsistent quarterback who can make good throws but always seems to make too many bad ones.

I’ll cut Clifford some slack here because this was just the 12th practice of the spring, with a new offensive coordinator. As the QB said, they still haven’t fully installed the offense, so it’s not fair to gauge him on one practice while still going through installs.

But Clifford had Jahan Dotson wide open in the middle of the end zone and missed him high. That throw has nothing to do with installs or a new offensive coordinator. A good two-year starting QB should be able to make that throw in his sleep. Clifford missed on it.

Late in the scrimmage, Clifford stepped up in the pocket while pressured and made an absolutely horrid throw. He just tossed one up for grabs to Parker Washington in the end zone, where freshman cornerback Kalen King had good coverage and picked it off.

It was just a practice, and Clifford was giving his guy a chance to make a play. Maybe he wouldn’t make that same decision in a game.

Let’s hope not. Because that kind of decision will lose games. Period.

Good: We heard all last week about Kalen King, with James Franklin saying the cornerback has been more impressive so far than any freshman he’s ever recruited at Penn State. After King had two INTs, including one for a pick-6 on a terrible throw by Ta’Quan Roberson, I asked Franklin what makes King so special at this stage in his career.

“He is physically ready. He’s a guy that’s come in and already physically developed from a weight standpoint and from a strength standpoint,” the coach said.

“He’s also very mature. Him and his twin brother (Kobe) are very mature, they know how to work, they know how to compete. On top of that, he’s got ball skills. You want to recruit guys that can play both sides of the ball. He’s got tremendous confidence in his talents, and he’s got ball skills.”

Franklin concluded by saying, “What you guys saw today isn’t new. We’ve seen it all spring.”

King is going to play a lot this season as a true freshman. Bank on it.

Good: Keyvone Lee had an impressive day and just might be the best running back on the team. Noah Cain is coming back from an injury and didn’t play Saturday, and Cain is able to do a lot of good things. But Lee was impressive as a freshman last year and actually could have the inside track to starting at tailback this fall.

Good: Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington are the top two receivers. Daniel George had a nice scrimmage and could be in line for a big role this season. He had just seven catches for 21 yards last season. But he made a really nice catch for a TD on a pass thrown by Ta’Quan Roberson.

Bad: Roberson’s early INT was as bad of a throw as you’ll see — just tossed up softly near the line of scrimmage — and Kalen King intercepted it for an easy pick-6.

Good: Roberson rebounded and had a solid day, all in all. He throws the quick slant very well, completing three such passes. The way Yurcich likes the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands quickly would seem to fit Roberson well. The young QB did some good things, scrambled well and showed potential.

Bad: I’m still not certain the backup QB for this fall is currently on the roster. Yes, Roberson has potential, but we’re talking about a Penn State team that might be ranked in the top 10 and with a quarterback in Clifford who still has a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint. The coaches, I believe, will need to be aggressive in the transfer portal and look for someone with a good bit of experience who can step in and perhaps be the backup right away. That wouldn’t be fair to Roberson, but it just might be what needs to happen.

Good: In a very limited role, true freshman QB Christian Veilleux did a nice job. He wasn’t given a lot to do, as the coaches kept his plays relatively simple, but he managed the game, didn’t make mistakes and seemed poised. There’s a lot to be said for stepping foot inside Beaver Stadium and playing quarterback just a few months after arriving on campus, and Veilleux handled himself well.

Good: Gotta love what Tank Smith did. The 5-foot-7, 237-pound running back ran for a TD and caught a pass for another score. It is awesome when the backups get their chance to showcase their talents in a spring game. I don’t know if Tank Smith will ever do much on the field in a game for PSU, which has great running back depth, but he was fun to watch Saturday.

Good: And finally, Penn State’s defense looked good. Much better than the offense, really. Temple transfer DE Arnold Ebiketie was all over the field, Kalen King covered the receivers well, the tackling was solid and the defenders made things tough on Sean Clifford. That’s not a great sign for Clifford, but it’s a very good sign for Brent Pry’s defense.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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