Sports Pulse: College football offseason programs are set to come back on time but at what risk? USA TODAY
Penn State’s Sean Clifford has fashioned himself a football perfectionist ever since he began throwing a ball.
And a confident one, at that.
It began years ago, as he threw for endless hours into a net in his cul-de-sac, when no one else was around.
That grew into a resilient high school star, then a kid who completed his first five college passes.
And now he’s taken his mental approach to a new level during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: He’s training with chess.
He’s led by Seth Makowsky, a professional performance coach or what Clifford calls “an elite mind trainer.” Learning chess moves is becoming a popular vehicle to making smarter, quicker decisions on the football field.
Makowsky runs a company called Poison Pawn, his clients including Olympians, Fortune 500 CEOs and quarterbacks.
Clifford talked about that Wednesday during his first media meeting since the virus shut down sports in March. He was as talkative and confident as usual. He came wearing a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the term “Gunslinger” and its definition.
His improvement could be what pushes Penn State to that last elite level in college football.
That chess training “really teaches you how to go through your reads and have a good formula to attack each play, attack each day, and kind of just grow as a person,” Clifford said.
The Penn State junior was highly successful in various realms as a first-year starting QB in 2019. He threw for 23 touchdowns and 2,654 yards against only seven interceptions. He showed impressive flashes of mobility, running for 402 yards and five more scores.
His team won 11 times, including the Cotton Bowl.
And yet his 59.2 completion percentage was disappointing for a player who prides himself on his intense preparation for throwing accuracy.
So he figured to use these past three months of isolation to work extra hard on the mental side of his game, as well as the foundation footwork that shapes most quarterbacks.
Better footwork should allow him a more consistent throwing platform. “I think that’s going to pay dividends throughout the year,” Clifford said.
That kind of learning began during winter drills as he took in offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s new offense. They’ve continued this spring through video lessons and tips from his new position leader.
Clifford’s advantage comes from having another Division I football player at home to share in the workouts and passing drills. Younger brother Liam Clifford is verbally committed to attend Penn State, probably as a receiver, in the class of 2021.
Selected strength training workouts have included push-up challenges in the family basement and pushing parked cars.
They’re both taking guidance from Dwight Galt, who runs what many consider to be one of the top college strength and conditioning programs in the nation.
Because of that, Clifford said he believes it won’t take much time — less than most expect — for him and his teammates to be ready for training camp once they are allowed to return to campus.
Head coach James Franklin already has said his team could be prepared for the season with only four weeks of camp.
“If you could find a hill, here’s a workout,” Clifford said. “If you can find stadium steps, here’s a workout. If you can find a backpack and put some books in it, then here’s a workout.
“It’s definitely been a difficult situation that has turned into what we’ve tried to make, as a team, a good one.”