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Clifford needs to prove he’s worthy of trust

Penn State football commentary

The Associated Press Penn State’s Sean Clifford works out in front of former NFL quarterback Eli Manning at the Manning Passing Academy on the campus of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., last Sunday.

When Sean Clifford decided to come back for a sixth season at Penn State, it seemed like a good idea both for the Nittany Lions and for him.

He’s not viewed as a high-round NFL prospect, and his experience — he’s started 33 games — would presumably give the Lions their best chance to navigate a difficult schedule that includes trips to Purdue, Auburn and Michigan in the first six games.

That would also allow backup candidates Christian Veilleux and freshmen Drew Allar and Beau Pribula a wider comfort zone while adjusting to college ball and learning the system.

You see, while Clifford has been generally average throughout his tenure — not consistently great, not consistently bad and at times a little bit of both — he does know the system.

And maybe just a little too well.

Earlier this month, with the coaches on vacation, Clifford helped organize a team meeting with Jason Stahl, executive director of the fledgling College Football Players Association, with the idea of improving benefits for players and uniting their voices.

Clifford, it was reported by veteran reporter Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, was seen as the face of the mission.

Stahl, according to CBS, was quietly brought to a meeting on July 14 — in the Penn State team meeting room — where an estimated 100 players were present.

“(The players) literally smuggled me into this facility at 7:30 in the morning to do an all-day presentation when there were no coaches around,” Stahl told CBS Sports. “The only reason this leaked out, the last five minutes of the presentation, the strength and training coach walked in the room.”

A power point was shown that included a timetable for possible unionization of the players, negotiating revenue sharing and medical benefits with the Big Ten and, even though it was quickly rejected, a boycott of fall camp.

Once Penn State’s coaches — who were on vacation — got wind from the strength coach, the university swung into prompt damage control mode, and the narrative was reshaped.

Clifford was praised for his leadership and, according to PSU statements, discussions with James Franklin, new athletic director Pat Kraft and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren were open and welcome.

A video of Clifford had been posted pushing medical benefits for career-ending injuries or conditions such as the one that ended the playing days for Journey Brown.

However, after news broke last Friday, Clifford saw the need to clarify his role a couple hours later via a Twitter post.

“To characterize my dialogues being on behalf of a union or union member would be inaccurate,” he wrote.

Stahl, who had been on campus for a week meeting with small groups, told CBS Sports that Clifford had “flipped” and is “now going through a massive internal conflict.”

Clifford is not a member of the CFBPA, but Stahl, once a University of Minnesota professor who had exposed the Gophers’ program for alleged abuses, told CBS Sports more than 30 Nittany Lions signed up by paying the $24 annual dues.

So how does this all shake out internally with practice beginning this weekend and Penn State attempting to bounce back from 2021, which ended with six losses in its last eight games, arguably the worst in-season collapse in school history?

Will there be trust issues to overcome?

Despite what he says, rest assured Franklin can be none too pleased at what went on behind his back — a situation that may have progressed further had a staff member not wandered in and yelled mayday.

Interestingly, at Big Ten media day Wednesday, Franklin started discussing position groups. The first one was quarterback, about which he said: “Obviously returning an experienced player, a starter, a guy who’s been a captain for three years, but this year our depth at the quarterback position, with four quarterbacks we feel very strong about, we feel great about the competition in that room.”

I was surprised he didn’t mention Clifford by name. Then again, though he traveled to Indianapolis with him, maybe Clifford’s name was stuck in his craw.

Neither Franklin nor Clifford addressed follow-up questions about the players’ meeting, conveniently preferring to focus on football.

This isn’t Clifford’s first venture outside the lines. Taking advantage of the new NIL rule (name, image and likeness), Clifford established his own NIL company called Limitless. He made a reported $100,000 from it last year. He has clients on the team, which could create a conflict of interest perception.

Some of this may be moot if Clifford plays well, which he did prior to the injury at Iowa that, along with losing P.J. Mustipher in the same game, wrecked the season.

But if Clifford doesn’t play well, his other interests will become a topic, and the leash Franklin has afforded him — now knowing the team met behind his back — won’t take long to tighten.

And that’s when we’ll find out if it was such a good idea for Sean Clifford — part businessman, part quarterback — to come back.

Rudel can be reached at 814-946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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