STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Trace McSorley had a pretty incredible 21st birthday, and that was before he even had breakfast.
McSorley is the new starting quarterback at Penn State, coach James Franklin announced Wednesday. The redshirt sophomore beat out redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens and freshman Jake Zembiec for the job of replacing Christian Hackenberg, who started for three seasons before leaving for the NFL.
Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead met with both players individually Tuesday morning to inform them of the decision. McSorley heard the good news, then went to meet his parents for breakfast.
They were in town because McSorley’s little sister also goes to Penn State and had just moved back for the fall semester. They were going to leave over the weekend, but decided to stay because it was his birthday Tuesday.
“It’s an honor to be named the starting quarterback at Penn State,” McSorley said after practice Wednesday. “It’s something since the day I committed here that I’ve always dreamed about. I mean, all of the great starting quarterbacks that have come out of Penn State, it’s an honor to be in that group.”
McSorley was Hackenberg’s backup last season, and saw his first significant action in the Tax Slayer Bowl. He threw touchdown passes in a 24-17 loss to Georgia, nearly rallying the team from a three-touchdown deficit. He also had a strong spring game, completing 23 of 27 passes and throwing four touchdowns. At the time, Franklin was adamant the competition would continue into the fall.
At points during this camp, Franklin continued to praise Stevens and say the two quarterbacks were still competing. Eventually, McSorley separated himself just enough.
“It wasn’t one thing,” Franklin said. “Tommy asked us, ‘What was the one thing?’ and it is not one thing. I understand that he’d like to know what that one thing is so he could work on it, but it’s really not. It was a combination of factors. Spring practice, meetings, the bowl game, being the backup for two years, summer, the whole picture.”
Penn State went 7-6 each of the past two seasons, and Franklin hired Moorhead to be his new offensive coordinator. Moorhead’s uptempo offense was highly successful at Fordham, and the Rams scored lots of points while making the FCS playoffs three years in a row.
McSorley played in a similar offense in high school, and his brain has always been one of his greatest strengths at the quarterback position.
“I’ve been coaching 28 years. I did two stints in college, coached a lot of good guys. He has to be the best from his age on at just understanding the game,” Charlie Pierce, McSorley’s high school coach, told Land of 10. “He was an extension of the coaching staff. He was beyond his years when it came to understanding the game, when it came to his nutrition, taking care of himself.”
When Franklin rattled off all the reasons why McSorley is the team’s starting quarterback, a lot of them were not on-the-field attributes. McSorley likes to lift weights with offensive linemen. The team’s strength and conditioning staff gave Franklin strong reviews of McSorley’s work when the coaches aren’t allowed to be around in the summer. Some of his teammates did the same.
As the Nittany Lions adjust to Moorhead’s new offense, McSorley’s ability to organize and lead players could be a huge asset. Penn State has plenty of talent at the skill positions to be productive, if McSorley can distribute the ball effectively.
At 6-foot-4, Stevens is taller, but Moorhead hasn’t needed a prototypical quarterback in the past. Mike Nebrich, who was Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year at Fordham in 2013 and 2014, is 6-foot-1 and played at about 205 pounds.
McSorley is listed at 6-feet, 201 pounds. His father, Rick, said he’s 202 on a good day. He has used his two years in the program to develop physically, and his father said he can now bench press 325 pounds and power clean 320. He’s also earned Franklin’s trust.
“The biggest thing is he’s been the backup quarterback for two years,” Franklin said. “He has game experience in the bowl game. There is value in that. We’ve been able to see it already. We’re not projecting as much.”
McSorley received a text from Franklin’s secretary Monday night, asking him to meet with the coach in the morning. He thought the meeting could involve the big decision, but he wasn’t sure.
He said he got a normal night’s sleep, went to the meeting, met with his parents for breakfast and then went to class. It was anything but a normal day, and a birthday story to tell for years to come.
“It is kind of a weight off my shoulders,” McSorley said. “It has been a long process since the end of January.”