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At Penn State, Sean Clifford states his case to start at quarterback

Penn State inched no closer this spring to naming a starting quarterback, a process coach James Franklin said Saturday that he’d like to expedite. It’s up to the quarterbacks themselves, though.

“You obviously want a starting quarterback as soon as that guy goes out there and grabs it,” offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said.

Penn State’s first serious quarterback competition since 2016 will roll into summer, though a hierarchy appears to be set. Fifth-year senior Tommy Stevens, despite his limited spring role and sideline spot at the Blue-White game, is the favorite to replace Trace McSorley.

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Sean Clifford, meanwhile, advanced his cause successfully as the de facto No. 1 this spring, which included an 11-for-19 passing day at Saturday’s scrimmage. After the game, Franklin said he wants to name a starter “as soon as we possibly can" without hinting at when that might occur.

But the Penn State coach added that Stevens has generated plenty of credit by virtue of his long and selfless history in the program.

“Tommy has done everything right for four years,” Franklin said. “There’s been a huge body of work that we’ve seen from him. … Our coaching staff has all the belief in the world in Tommy, understands what Tommy has done and who he can be. But we also have belief in the other guys, and we’ve created real good competition in our quarterback room.”

That competition was on display at the Blue-White game, where the Lions played four of their five scholarship quarterbacks. Clifford ran well and delivered a few solid touch throws, Will Levis threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dan Chisena and freshman Michael Johnson Jr. went 4 for 4. Fellow freshman Ta’Qan Roberson rushed seven times for 21 yards.

Despite having to replace a three-year starter in McSorley, the program’s winningest quarterback, Franklin senses an assured tone from the position.

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“We have some depth challenges at certain positions, but at the quarterback position we’ve created a pretty competitive room that’s very supportive of one another,” Franklin said. "That’s really not common nationally. That’s usually the room people struggle with. I probably shouldn’t say that, knock on wood."

Clifford, a redshirt sophomore, has developed more experience because of Stevens’ injury issues the past year. As the lead quarterback this spring, Clifford was determined to make himself a better runner in Penn State’s offense.

He weighs close to 220 pounds, about 30 more than his freshman year, and studied the nuances of being mobile from the pocket. Clifford isn’t ready to call himself a dual-threat quarterback (“I’m not trying to be Mike Vick out here,” he said) but understands how being able to run draws and scramble from trouble can make him more effective.

“I love passing the ball; that’s why I play quarterback,” Clifford said. “But one of my biggest criticisms is that I can’t move as well as other guys. I’m definitely trying to add another dynamic to my game so I can press defenses in different ways."

For Rahne, Penn State’s second-year offensive coordinator, coaching Stevens and Clifford this spring involved different approaches. Rahne wanted to see Clifford find his first read and release the ball more quickly Saturday but was pleased with how the quarterback moved this spring.

With Stevens watching most live-session reps from the sideline, Rahne stood back and quizzed him on what he saw.

"And he’d give me the answer I wanted,” Rahne said. “I thought he did a nice job with that.”

After the game, Clifford called the competition a “day-by-day” process, one in which he feels quite engaged. He prides himself on accuracy and leadership, two hallmarks of successful starting quarterbacks.

The next step will be pursuing his chance.

“All of us are working hard to do whatever we can to put the best product on the field in the fall,” Clifford said. “Whoever that [starting quarterback] is, we’re going to push each other to be the best so, in the end, we’re the team in the playoffs.”

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