In pre-COVID society, Sean Clifford would be getting ready to play his last few games as Penn State’s starting quarterback.
Even amidst the pandemic, it’s still possible that Clifford’s time as a Nittany Lion will end after the Nittany Lions’ bowl game, whenever and wherever that may be.
But COVID-19 has made things a lot more interesting in many different facets of college sports, one of those being that college athletes can play a little longer if they want to.
Clifford is a fifth-year senior, redshirting his freshman season in 2017. Before 2020, the only way a student-athlete could get a sixth year would be for medical reasons.
Right now, with Michigan looming and three more games after that, Clifford isn’t thinking about 2022.
“I’m just more so taking advantage of this time with my team,” he said in a Wednesday afternoon Zoom call. “When the time comes, I’ll have discussions with my family, my coaches, you know, other players. But right now, it’s really hard to look in the future when you have so much in the present.”
Yes, Clifford keeping his focus on the rest of the season is prudent. For followers of Penn State football, however, it might be interesting to consider– albeit months early– the possibility of Clifford returning for a sixth season and fourth as starting quarterback.
Unlike teammate and fellow senior Jahan Dotson, Clifford won’t be an early-round draft pick next spring. If Clifford were to stay, he’d have a chance to up his draft stock and make more money, and when he’s weighing that decision this winter, he might look to the other side of Pennsylvania for information.
Nobody expected Pitt’s Kenny Pickett to be among the nation’s best quarterbacks. After a rough senior season in 2020, Pickett decided to come back for a fifth year.
It’s paid off, and now, with 29 touchdown passes and 3,171 yards, Pickett has not only made a name for himself nationally but has also given himself a chance to be selected in the first round of the 2022 draft.
Penn State has a lot of talent slated to come back next season– barring transfers and other circumstances, of course. Even with Dotson likely going to the NFL, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert Smith will still be there at receiver, and current redshirt freshman Malik Meiga will also probably take on an increased role. The tight end trio of Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren will also be back, and although Penn State’s running game has struggled, Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee will give the Nittany Lions experience in the backfield. If Clifford comes back, he’d also have another year with his brother, Liam, who is currently a freshman at Penn State.
On the flip side, Sean Clifford is 23 years old. By the time next season starts, he’ll be 24, and by the time the 2023 NFL season starts, he’ll be in his mid-20s. So it’s certainly possible that Clifford will be ready to move on after already playing so much college football.
Beyond 2023, Penn State’s future at quarterback is bright, assuming Drew Allar— a five-star recruit and the No. 1 prep QB in the nation according to 247sports– doesn’t flip. Although some fans are probably ready for the Age of Allar to begin as soon as possible, the idea of starting a freshman quarterback is always a risky one for a school that looks to compete for a Big 10 championship every year. If Clifford returns, Penn State wouldn’t have to throw Allar into the fire right away, giving the kid more time to develop.
Whatever the decision is, Clifford has something to decide after five years of college football, which is an example of how different things are for the NCAA in 2021.