When James Franklin left Vanderbilt, quarterback Trace McSorley’s path to Penn State wasn’t a simple one
ASHBURN, Va. — Trace McSorley’s recruiting story sounds straightforward.
- McSorley wanted to play quarterback.
- Vanderbilt was his best quarterback offer.
- Vanderbilt coach James Franklin left for Penn State.
- McSorley flipped his commitment from Vanderbilt and signed with Penn State.
If only it were that simple.
One of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Virginia high school history endured a couple of harrowing weeks when Franklin began to consider other jobs and eventually landed at Penn State. McSorley considered maintaining his commitment to Vanderbilt, but meanwhile he listened to new recruiting pitches from Wake Forest and NC State before eventually deciding to follow Franklin to Happy Valley.
The redshirt sophomore was named Penn State’s starting quarterback Wednesday.
“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, said. “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.
“He had developed relationships with Vanderbilt players and recruits, being in group messages with them and things like that. At one point, the week before it all went down, Trace thought coach Franklin was staying at Vanderbilt, based on a text message from someone inside the athletic department.”
McSorley won 55 games and three state titles as a four-year starting quarterback at Briar Woods High School. Listed at 6-foot, McSorley was highly recruited, but as a safety, and he wanted the chance to play quarterback.
One of the candidates to replace Franklin was Herb Hand, the team’s offensive line coach and social media maven. McSorley liked him, but he did not get the job and also ended up at Penn State as offensive line coach. Six days after Franklin left, Vanderbilt hired Stanford assistant Derek Mason, who had been recruiting McSorley as a safety for the Cardinal.
“It was crazy. My mind just went blank for like a whole week,” McSorley said. “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.’ “
When reports of Franklin possibly leaving Vanderbilt surfaced, several schools started actively recruiting McSorley, including a couple that hadn’t offered him a chance to play quarterback before he committed to the Commodores.
NC State and Wake Forest both had new coaches and wanted to add another dual-threat quarterback late in the recruiting cycle. McSorley finished his career with the second-most total yards in Virginia state history, and was rated the nation’s No. 15 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2014. Wake Forest also had a freshman tight end, Cam Serigne, who was McSorley’s favorite target at Briar Woods. He is a year older, but they are best friends.
“Cam was hoping. Man, was he hoping for Wake Forest,” Charlie Pierce, McSorley’s coach at Briar Woods, said.
“Obviously it would have been great to have Trace here at Wake, but I just wanted him to do what was best for him,” Serigne said. “All of the guys on that team wanted to do our own thing, and I think it’s worked out for everyone.”
A few days after Franklin took the job at Penn State, coaches from Vanderbilt, Penn State, Wake Forest and NC State all came to Ashburn to see McSorley on the same day.
Pierce said Penn State’s new coaching staff told McSorley to “sit tight.” The Nittany Lions, dealing with NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, were short on scholarships and Franklin’s staff needed a couple of days to figure out if they could offer him one.
The McSorley family wanted to know what Franklin had to say about Michael O’Connor, a highly rated quarterback from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., who was already committed to Penn State in McSorley’s class.
“[Trace] had some background with Penn State, been to camp there,” McSorley’s father said. “And because it is a small world, [former Penn State coach] Bill O’Brien was one of my best friend’s college roommate. He knew who Penn State was, that wasn’t an issue, but it was where does Trace fit at Penn State? That’s really where the stress came in.”
Penn State introduced Franklin as the new coach Jan. 11. The following weekend McSorley was in State College, Pa., and he flipped his commitment from Vanderbilt. The new coaching staff assured McSorley he’d be given the chance to compete at quarterback, and then O’Connor transferred out of the program after their first year. McSorley backed up Christian Hackenberg in 2015, and the three-year starter skipped his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
“Coming up here just made up my mind,” McSorley said. “It had the coaches from Vanderbilt and the academics, but now it was Penn State football in the Big Ten with 107,000 people. I was upset that whole week but it was a blessing in disguise.”
On the day that four FBS schools sent coaches to Briar Woods to re-recruit McSorley, he sat with his coach at 8 a.m. ahead of the meetings and asked for his advice.
“Here’s the analogy I gave him: Say you had a girlfriend and you were really close,” Pierce said. “You decided you guys were going in on this townhouse together, but something happens and you broke up. You hadn’t signed the lease on that townhouse yet, though. Are you still moving into that townhouse?
“He said, ‘No, sir.’ I said, ‘It’s the same thing here.’ ”