No one is pushing Sean Clifford out the door just yet. And good luck if you’re wishing for it, because James Franklin’s not having it. Not yet, anyway.

But the time is coming, in a couple months if not sooner, when Penn State’s 9th-year head coach will have to move on at the quarterback position. And someone’s going to get one heck of an opportunity.

Franklin won’t be looking for the next Clifford, as much as he might love the young man’s grit. Truthfully, he’ll need more even than what 3-year starter Trace McSorley gave him — and that was a lot.

Barring major changes in offensive philosophy, the program’s demands on the quarterback position have no where to go but up. The Nittany Lions will need better passers than they’ve ever had, and yet those who can’t run effectively need not apply.

It’s a new era

The 3 most prolific career passers in Penn State history have all played under Franklin, a testament to the coach’s loyalty to his starting quarterbacks and his offensive philosophy. The 2 most recent QBs, incumbent starter Clifford and predecessor McSorley, are also among the most effective runners out of the position in the program’s long history.

For better (2016-19) or worse (Franklin’s other 4 seasons), Penn State’s overarching approach to moving the football has evolved. Is that a good thing? In many ways, it’s simply a sign of the times. For a variety of reasons, running the ball proves much more difficult these days. These are pass-happy times at almost all levels of football. Dynamic quarterbacks are in vogue; game-managers rarely win national championships anymore.

Under 5 offensive coordinators in the past 8 seasons, the Nittany Lions have become so QB-centric that Franklin’s field generals can’t be compared fairly to past standouts. It’s apples and oranges. Kerry Collins, who led the ultra-prolific 1994 offense, passed for 2,679 yards that year and 5,304 for his career. Those totals rank 8th and 9th all-time at Penn State. The 3 guys who have made 99 of 101 starts at QB during the Franklin era all sit higher on those charts.

Christian Hackenberg and McSorley rewrote the PSU record book, and Clifford most likely will top both of them in career passing yards and TDs, as he’s set to become the program’s first 10,000-yard career passer.

Beyond all that, Franklin has expected his most recent QBs to run the ball aggressively.

McSorley posted career highs of 25 carries for 175 yards in a 27-26 loss to Ohio State in 2018. He had double-digit carries in 24 of his 40 starts. He served as the Lions’ secondary running threat in each of his 3 seasons as the starter. With 30 career rushing TDs, including a team-high 12 in 2018, he ranks above all but 5 running backs on the school’s all-time list.

Clifford, who’s about to enter his 4th season as the starter as a 6th-year senior, posted double-digit carries in 10 of his first 15 career starts and has 8 games of 50+ rushing yards with a best of 119. He led the team in carries in 2020 despite ceding short-yardage duties to backup QB Will Levis. He went 23 starts before having his first game with negative rushing yardage (Week 4 last year vs. Villanova), then had 4 more such games over the final 6 weeks of the regular season. The Lions went 1-3 in those games and lost 6 of 8 after Clifford took a big hit vs. Iowa that limited his ground game the rest of the way.

Franklin, a former quarterback himself, loves running from the position so much he even worked Levis into a QB-as-short-yardage-back role,  running the big-bodied former 3-star recruit all the way to Kentucky following the 2020 season. Back to being a pass-first QB, Levis has shown enough promise since transferring to Lexington to engender talk of him being an early-round NFL pick next year.

Meanwhile, in State College, 5-star recruit Drew Allar, fellow true freshman Beau Pribula and redshirt freshman Christian Veilleux wait in the wings behind Clifford, each hoping he can be the next QB to fit Franklin’s prototype and earn his trust. The winner of that competition will have a shot at superstardom in the national spotlight, given the importance Franklin places on the position and the top 10 recruiting classes the coach is attracting lately.

Franklin asks a lot of his quarterbacks, and once convinced he has found the right guy, sticks with him through thick and thin. That pays dividends, but also means guys who don’t prevail in any particular narrow window of opportunity tend to move on, especially now that the transfer portal is a reality. During Franklin’s tenure, 6 QBs rated 3-stars or better have finished college elsewhere and another one ended his career early because of an injury. That’s every scholarship quarterback other than Hackenberg, McSorley and Clifford from 2014 to 2020. Despite clamoring by fans, Tommy Stevens and Levis never got much of a shot before hitting the portal and earning starting jobs elsewhere.

It didn’t use to be like this. Back before NIL and no-questions-asked transfers, Penn State quarterbacks generally waited their turn as underclassmen, then got 2 years as the starter if they really proved themselves. (It usually took a spate of injuries for anyone to start before his junior year.) Even then, they didn’t get to chuck the ball all over the yard.

The classic mold

Todd Blackledge and John Shaffer, the QBs of Penn State’s 2 national championship teams in the glory days of the 1980s, played the position in constrained fashion. Joe Paterno didn’t ask them to run much, and he didn’t need them to rack up monster yardage totals or completion percentages. By today’s standards, they didn’t even do a great job of protecting the ball outside of their championship seasons.

CREDIT: USA TODAY Sports archives

Blackledge had a 41:41 TD-to-interception ratio and a 51.8 completion percentage in regular-season play over 3 seasons of action. (Back then, bowl games didn’t count in a player’s career or single-season stats.) Only in the 1982 championship campaign did Blackledge finally have a season with more than 2,000 yards passing (2,218, plus another 228 in the 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia), more TDs than INTs (22-14) and a completion percentage above 50.2 (55.1).

What Clifford wouldn’t give to be judged by that standard. But those were the days before IMG Academy and its ilk, elite quarterback camps, spread offenses and seasons topping out at 15 games.

Back then, Blackledge’s lone solid season earned him the No. 7 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, behind John Elway but ahead of a couple of slouches named Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.

In 1986, Shaffer, the quintessential game-manager, threw for all of 1,510 regular-season yards, completing 55.9% of his passes, with 9 TDs and 4 INTs. Even with that season, which ended at 12-0 with a 14-10 victory over Vinny Testaverde and Miami for the national title, Shaffer finished his college career with a completion rate under 50% (47.9) and 6 more INTs (24) than TDs thrown (18).

Eight years later, Kerry Collins led the most recent undefeated PSU season, busting out after a mundane first 3 seasons to complete 66.7% of his passes for a then-record 2,679 yards and 21 TDs vs. 7 INTs. Collins led the Lions to a 12-0 record and a 38-20 Rose Bowl victory over Oregon, but he shared the spotlight with tailback Ki-Jana Carter, who ran for 1,539 yards and 23 TDs during the regular season. Carter produced another 156 yards and 3 TDs against the Ducks as Penn State scored all 5 of its Rose Bowl touchdowns on the ground (none of them by Collins).

Collins went 5th in the draft to Carolina in 1995 and spent 17 seasons in the NFL, 10 more than Blackledge.

None of those 3 qualified as a running threat, as Collins and Shaffer finished their careers in the red in rushing yards and Blackledge had 99 yards over 3 seasons, losing 27 yards on the ground in the national championship season.

Between Shaffer and Collins, Tony Sacca (1988-91) racked up a then school record 5,869 passing yards, capitalizing when pressed into duty as a freshman because of injuries. But he completed less than 50% of his passes and averaged less than a yard per carry as a runner. Before Sacca, Chuck Fusina (1975-78) stood as Penn State’s all-time leader in passing yards. Fusina completed 55.9% of his passes, but his TD-INT ratio was barely above 1 (37 TDs, 32 INTs) and he lost 220 yards on the ground.

The 21st century mold

In 2009, Daryll Clark became Penn State’s first single-season 3,000-yard passer, finishing with 3 yards to spare and breaking Collins’ record that had stood for 15 years. The starter in 2008-09, Clark finished his PSU career as the program’s leader in career TD passes (43, vs. only 16 INTs) and completion percentage (60.2). He ranked 3rd all-time in passing yards (5,742). He also ran for 619 yards, averaging 3.3 per carry. Statistically, you could argue he was the best QB to play his full college career under Paterno.

Clark initiated a QB progression at Penn State, with each successor improving on the previous guy’s career numbers for passing yards and TDs. Matt McGloin (6,390/46 TDs), Hackenberg (8,427/48) and McSorley (9,899/77) each one-upped his immediate predecessor.

Before Clark, in the early 2000s, Zach Mills (2001-04) set the standard with 7,212 yards on 56.0 percent passing while also running for 584 yards. Anthony Morelli (2004-07) followed, posting similar stats minus the rushing yards, with fewer career passing yards but a better TD-INT ratio (31-19 vs. Mills’ 41-39).

The current mold

Add 4 inches of height, and McSorley, whom Franklin originally recruited to Vanderbilt, becomes the QB mockup the PSU staff would sketch out in their QB lab. In 2016-17, the 6-foot McSorley posted the 2 best all-around QB seasons in program history, mixing his passing and running abilities with superb field vision, decision-making, instincts, toughness and leadership. Nobody has done it better at Penn State.

CREDIT: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Hackenberg, whom Franklin inherited, proved to be a square peg in a round hole once Bill O’Brien’s 2-year coaching stint ended. Out of necessity, Franklin kept Hackenberg on in 2014-15, and the classic pro-style pocket passer kept the team afloat and above .500 during extremely challenging times.

Since 2019, it’s been all Clifford, save for 2 starts by the since-departed Levis. So far, the now-24-year-old Ohioan hasn’t matched McSorley in anything other than longevity. He plays the same game as McSorley, but without the smoothness and fluidity.

Still, there are mitigating circumstances. In the running game, McSorley got to play off of a 1,000-yard back every year; Clifford is still waiting to be partnered with one. And Clifford takes grief about his passing abilities that probably has more to do with PSU’s W-L record during his tenure than anything else. Consider: If he maintains or improves his 60.4 completion percentage, he’ll end his college career as PSU’s most accurate passer among those who saw significant action. Right now, only he and Clark have topped the 60% mark.

Want more evidence? He ranks 2nd and 4th on the single-game passing yardage list. His 401-yard game last year vs. Villanova ranks behind only Hackenberg’s 454-yard effort vs. Central Florida in 2014’s Croke Park Classic in Ireland. His 62-24 TD-to-INT ratio puts most of his predecessors to shame, with McSorley (77-25) the main exception.

The future mold?

The main question going forward: Is the running element a necessity or a luxury in Franklin’s mind? Barring a major change in strategy, it seems like the answer is the former. Look no farther than what happened last year.

Before getting knocked out of the Iowa game, Clifford had run 44 times for 173 yards (3.9 per carry) on the season, and Penn State was undefeated and seemingly on its way to 6-0 and a No. 2 national ranking. The rest of the way, Clifford ran 55 times (sacks count as rushing attempts) for minus-10 yards as the Lions closed the season with 6 losses in the final 8 games.

Before McSorley and Clifford, only 1 Penn State QB ever topped 400 rushing yards in a season. Shoot, most of them never reached 400 in a career. The one was Michael Robinson, who racked up 806 yards and 11 TDs on the ground in 2005, his lone season as the team’s full-time quarterback. He also passed for 2,350 yards and 17 TDs that year, seemingly the forerunner to Clark and then Franklin’s chosen guys.

Because he inherited Hackenberg, Franklin’s track record at Penn State really only runs 2 QBs deep. That’s an odd reality for a coach closing in on a decade in State College. Still, the pattern and the plan seem set. Unless Mike Yurcich shifts gears dramatically this fall in Year 2 of his tenure as offensive coordinator, it’s probably safe to assume Penn State’s spread offense will require a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Consider this: McSorley was the team’s second-leading rusher in each of his 3 seasons at the helm; Clifford’s best rushing season (402 yards in 2019) coincides with his best W-L season.

Taking those facts to their logical conclusion, Penn State needs a future QB in the mold of a Lamar Jackson, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton or Vince Young. Each of them had at least 1 college season with 3,000+ passing yards and 1,000+ rushing yards.

There are 2 problems with that:

Global scarcity: Though not as rare as they once were, such guys don’t grow on trees. Prospects are getting quality, specialized training at younger and younger ages, but this remains an exclusive club.

Local scarcity: None of the freshman waiting behind Clifford perfectly fits the mold, especially not Allar, who is seen as the likely heir apparent based on his 5-star recruiting rating. Most analysts suggest his ability as a runner is the biggest unknown in his game, though he did take off around the edge at least once in the Blue-White Game (above). Veilleux, in his relief appearance against Rutgers, displayed some fancy footwork, both while moving within the pocket and on his 10 carries for 36 yards. Pribula gets high marks for accuracy and athleticism, so maybe the 3-star Pennsylvania prospect shouldn’t be counted out of the 2023 competition, either. After all, McSorley was a 3-star coming out of high school, too.

Other approaches?

Can Penn State play its spread offense without a running quarterback? In theory, yes. Ohio State excelled with dual-threat guys JT Barrett and Justin Fields, but also did pretty darn well last year while freshman CJ Stroud lost 20 yards on the ground over the course of an 11-2 season. Stroud threw for 4,435 yards and left the running to true freshman sensation TreVeyon Henderson.

If 5-star Nicholas Singleton, the No. 1 running back recruit in the country this year, takes off like Henderson, maybe Clifford and his successor won’t have to run so much going forward.

On the other hand, Stroud may be the exception to the rule for these times. With almost every team spreading the field and playing only 1 running back at a time, it’s tough to stress or deceive defenses without a running threat at QB.

Conclusion

This season should tell a lot about where Franklin and Yurcich are headed with the offense. If Clifford runs as much as ever, there’s probably no going back. Whoever succeeds him will need to be, like him, at least adequate as a runner. And ideally, better. Much better.

The other option is to try to get by with just one true running threat on the field. Penn State hasn’t had a fullback listed on the roster since 2014, and none of those 3 guys played any offense for Franklin. You’re as likely to see TE Tyler Warren or DT PJ Mustipher line up in the backfield as a second running back.

Always considered football’s most important position, quarterback ranks exponentially more so at Penn State under the current regime. The Lions are passing more than ever, and also running their QB more than ever. Compare Fran Ganter’s nation-leading 1994 offense (47.0 ppg) to Joe Moorhead’s 2017 juggernaut (41.1 ppg, 7th in FBS), and the game’s offensive evolution becomes clear.

  • In 1994, the team passed on less than 40 percent of its plays and Collins was credited with 12 rushing attempts all season.
  • In 2017, the Lions passed more than 50 percent of the time and McSorley rushed 144 times for 491 yards.

Penn State is barely scratching the surface of what QB play can be in these times.

With a decent season, Clifford can finish as PSU’s most accurate passer at a few ticks above 60 percent. Over the past decade, the marquee guys at the position have challenged the 65% and even 70% barriers. At Ohio State, Dwayne Haskins finished his 2-year career at 70 percent, JT Barrett finished above 60 percent each season 2014-17 and Stroud connected on 71.9 percent of his throws in his debut season last year. Recent college studs Trevor Lawrence (66.6%), Kyler Murray (67.4%) and Joe Burrow (68.8%) have upped the ante before moving on to the NFL. The list goes on and on.

If this is the game Franklin, Yurcich and the Lions are playing, they’re just getting started. At least, they better be just getting started.

Whoever takes the reins after Clifford will have a shot to leave an astronomical mark on PSU history. Given that the program is putting together its 2nd top 10 recruiting class in as many years, the offensive deck is going to be stacked for someone to inherit one heck of an opportunity.

Whether Allar, Veilleux or Pribula fits the profile well enough to thrive, only time will tell.