Penn State coach James Franklin and quarterback Trace McSorley shared a celebratory exchange Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as confetti rained down upon the newly anointed Big Ten champions. Seeds were planted for this moment more than three years beforehand, when the two agreed to join forces … at Vanderbilt.
McSorley, who set the Nittany Lions’ single-season record with five 300-yard passing games as a redshirt sophomore, grew acclimated with Franklin and Penn State passing game coordinator Ricky Rahne during high school. They spearheaded his recruitment on behalf of Vanderbilt, eventually impressing the 3-star prospect enough to warrant a July 2013 verbal pledge.
He committed to the Commodores during a campus visit, six weeks before the start of his senior season at Briar Woods (Ashburn, Va.) High School.
“I liked the place before when I was here but this time I got to spend time with the players and the coaches and they’re great people,” McSorley told Barton Simmons of 247Sports following his decision. “They want to win national championships and SEC championships and it’s the right fit.”
Franklin, fresh off his first of back-to-back nine-win campaigns at Vanderbilt, did ultimately make good on his goal of a conference championship. However, it took a career move and three seasons in Happy Valley to turn that vision into a reality.
When it happened, courtesy of a 38-31 comeback victory over Wisconsin, McSorley proved to be a guiding force. He completed 22 of 31 pass attempts against the Badgers, collecting 384 yards and 4 touchdowns.
One week earlier, McSorley shredded Michigan State for 376 passing yards and 4 scores through the air. He didn’t toss an interception in either game.
Those efforts served up a strong statement from a quarterback who went largely unnoticed by recruiting industry leaders who routinely labeled him an “athlete.” Below is a rundown of how McSorley was ranked as a member of the 2014 class.
- 247Sports: No. 14 dual-threat quarterback; No. 514 overall; 3-star recruit
- ESPN: No. 60 athlete; unranked nationally; 3-star recruit
- Rivals: No. 50 athlete; unranked nationally; 3-star recruit
- Scout: No. 37 quarterback; unranked nationally; 3-star recruit
Even Rahne recalls a time when his now-star pupil wasn’t locked into one spot on the field. Vanderbilt initially targeted McSorley at safety, a story shared last November during a discussion with Greg Pickel of PennLive.com.
“I wasn’t quite sure, but I loved him as an athlete and as a safety and I gave him to our defensive coaches and they liked him, and they offered him as a safety,” said Rahne, who coached the Commodores quarterbacks at that time. “At safety, he had good speed, he had quickness, he was always around the ball, had great instincts, and the other thing, he was tough. … I watched his tape; I liked it as a QB.”
— Ricky Rahne (@RickyRahne) May 17, 2017
By the time McSorley committed to Vanderbilt, he was on the same page with Franklin’s staff. His collegiate future would be at quarterback.
“I sat down and watched film with Coach Rahne and they like my accuracy and arm strength, but the thing they really like is my mobility and big-play ability,” he told Simmons in July 2013. “I can turn a negative play into a positive play. They want me to come ready to compete for a starting position.”
McSorley led Briar Woods to the Virginia 5A state championship game as a senior. He finished his prep career with a 55-5 record, collecting more than 12,000 offensive yards and 150 touchdowns along the way, according to his Penn State bio.
His prowess as a passer was on full display during fall 2013. McSorley earned all-state accolades, torching opponents for 3,252 passing yards and 36 touchdown tosses, in addition to 892 yards and 13 scores on the ground.
Penn State recruiting target TJ Bradley, an offensive tackle at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania, graduated from Tuscarora (Va.) High in 2015. Like Briar Woods, Tuscarora is located in Loudoun County, and Bradley remembers the McSorley mystique was hard to ignore back then.
“Everyone in the area knew his name,” he said. “Trace dominated.”
Following Franklin’s second nine-win season at Vanderbilt, his name began to surface among candidates who could replace former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, who bolted for the Houston Texans job on Jan. 3, 2014. This all occurred within weeks of National Signing Day, creating a whirlwind situation for McSorley.
“When Coach Franklin was making his decision about whether or not to leave Vanderbilt, he was very quiet on that front,” McSorley’s father, Rick, told Land of 10 colleague Corey Masisak last summer. “Even some of the coaches down at Vanderbilt, his recruiters, didn’t know what was going to happen. … It was really stressful for Trace, because he thought that process was done and his decision was behind him.”
Franklin was officially announced as O’Brien’s replacement Jan. 11.
“My mind just went blank for like a whole week,” Trace told Land of 10. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. Honestly, I was kind of upset when Coach Franklin came up here. I was like, ‘Dang, I was really excited about going to Vanderbilt.’ ”
Franklin extended an offer — again — to McSorley the following week, and he flipped his commitment to Penn State on Jan. 20.
Other programs made last-ditch efforts in the aftermath of Vanderbilt’s staff shuffle, including North Carolina State and Wake Forest. It didn’t matter, as a January trip to State College reconnected McSorley with Franklin and Rahne and sold him on the university.
“When you walk on campus, you can feel how big football is there,” he told Tariq Lee of the Washington Post after switching to Penn State. “There are so many possibilities as a Penn State graduate. It just seemed like endless opportunities when you think about it. They have a network of over 600,000 graduates and are a highly rated academic school. Once I got there, I saw there weren’t many places that can beat it.”
McSorley sat as a freshman redshirt before backing up current New York Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2015. Still carrying two more seasons of college eligibility, he is in excellent position to challenge Hackenberg’s school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Surrounded by a strong supporting cast that includes a potential All-American at tight end (Mike Gesicki) and a fellow Heisman Trophy hopeful in the backfield (Saquon Barkley), expectations have never been greater for the former 3-star “athlete.”