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Bodani: Trace McSorley provides Penn State hope

Written by Frank Bodani/York Daily Record | Jan 4, 2016 12:40 PM
PennState_McSorley_600X320.jpg

Photo by Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record

(Jacksonville, Fla.) -- One of the most important players in Penn State history walked out of a tangle of media members and down a dingy stadium hallway toward the team bus.

Along the way, he passed the kid he mentored the past two years.

The kid was still answering questions as he stood against a wall. It was almost as if Christian Hackenberg was leaving him that first spotlight just a little longer.

One quarterback to another.

The three-year starter passing on the leadership ...

Because the most pertinent takeaway from Penn State's TaxSlayer Bowl loss was the performance of redshirt freshman Trace McSorley. Who knows if the quarterback from Ashburn, Virginia, is built solidly enough to survive the pounding he ultimately will absorb as a running threat in the Big Ten?

But for the last two seasons, all we heard is that the coaches were impressed by his confidence and the way he handled his teammates and the offense. We kept hearing how he almost never lost a game in high school, as much from willing his teams to win as anything.

We just never got to see it until he was thrown cold into the middle of a bowl game against the top-rated pass defense in the nation.

How he accounted for himself, then, over those final two-plus quarters would be the most critical thing fans learned about this team moving forward. Certainly, it was the most positive vibe coming from a game with so much familiar frustration.

Because it's always a good bet the Nittany Lions would be looking for a new quarterback in 2016, long before Hackenberg announced he will leave early for the NFL. And that seemed to be lining up like a crap shoot between McSorley, true freshman Tommy Stevens and incoming freshman Jake Zembiec.

Each would be learning Joe Moorhead's new offense at the same time.

That was before Saturday. Now, at least, the Lions own a true front-runner. That is huge for a program still taking small steps to get back to where it was five years ago.

Of course, McSorley looked lost against Georgia at first. And his teammates seemed to deflate, too, once Hackenberg was knocked out.

Consider the situation. With his team on the verge of getting embarrassed, McSorley gathered himself and those around him and calmly began making sharp decisions, delivering accurate passes and pumping up his buddies as he soaked in some well-timed advice from Hackenberg.

No matter that he's somewhat limited physically. He's got quick feet but not game-changing speed or moves. He doesn't possess the size to simply stand and throw over any defensive line, nor the arm strength to deliver passes like Hackenberg.

Still, he stirred a comeback in the midst of everything falling apart -- which probably says more about him than anything else.

Afterwards, he acted like he had done it a bunch of times before.

Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said he had already seen it. "We'd be in practice and he'd come in there and move the ball on us better than most teams we played because he's a winner."

Said receiver Geno Lewis: "Trace can throw the ball, as you guys saw. Don't ever think he can't go out there and sling it around with anybody else."

His performance was probably even more important than a victory in a low-level bowl game. Most everything about coach James Franklin's focus now must be about building and planning, if his team is ever going to arrive where it wants to be.

And that's not to take away from sending out Hackenberg and the seniors the right way. They did what they could to keep Penn State above water the past few years. But pushing through to the next vital stage only begins now.

Can McSorley take them there? At halftime, when respected senior lineman Angelo Mangiro, rose to speak and address the team, McSorley pushed down on his shoulder pads to keep him sitting. The quarterback needed to lead then.

"It's huge, having that confidence (from the game)," he said. "But now the real work starts. You got to get ready going into spring, working with Coach Moorhead and how we're going to be doing things now. The real work starts now ..."

A victory over Georgia with a healthy Hackenberg would have been nice window-dressing, for sure. It would have made people feel a little better. But it wasn't really to help finish off this recruiting class the way it needs to be. It wasn't going to help develop the youngest offensive linemen before next summer if any quarterback stands a chance in his offense.

Intriguing, indeed, how an undersized kid made the most of a situation that, at its core, didn't seem like it would provide much insight at all.

Then again, maybe the new quarterback just needed a shot.

"You can tell that Trace, he's a dog," Zettel said, meaning that as the most sincere compliment. "He's going to go work, he's going to get these guys right ..."


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF.

 

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