It is a scene repeated every so many years, a constant in a Penn State universe shaken to its core in the last half-decade:
Two quarterbacks. One spot.
“Like, angry?” McSorley asked.
He couldn’t quite summon a scowl, but the guy with camera was patient enough.
“Let’s do a smile first,” he said. “Now, let’s turn it upside-down.”
Eventually both QBs were properly grim-faced, and everyone was satisfied.
But what now? What of a derby that began with McSorley in the lead but has seen Stevens cut the gap in the early days of preseason drills, according to coach James Franklin?
There is some expectation that McSorley, a redshirt sophomore, will at least get the first crack at the job, given the fact that he has made seven appearances to date (to none for Stevens, who redshirted in 2015, his first season in the program). And given the fact that the most recent of McSorley’s outings was in long relief against Georgia in last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl, in which he threw for 142 yards and two touchdowns after Christian Hackenberg went down with a shoulder injury.
Those who know McSorley well swear he’s equal to the task. That he looks the part. That he has the physical tools, yes, but also the “it” factor. The toughness. The presence. The ability to move men.
“Trace just has that gene inside him that just makes him a competitor, and just a winner,” said Wake Forest tight end Cam Serigne, once McSorley’s teammate at Briar Woods High in Ashburn, Va.
That is literally true. McSorley’s dad, Rick, played football at Richmond, and a paternal uncle, Jeff, played at Marshall. But McSorley has seemingly taken that DNA and run with it.
Backtrack to his time at Briar Woods. To the first game of his freshman year, when as a 15-year-old starter he led his team, minus its top two running backs, on a game-winning 88-yard drive in the final minutes.
Briar Woods went on to win the state championship that year. And the year after. And the year after that. The Falcons jumped up in class his final season, but McSorley nonetheless took them back to the state final. There they lost by a touchdown, but no matter; his career win-loss record was 55-5, his legacy beyond reproach.
“He was kind of smart beyond his years,” Briar Woods coach Charlie Pierce said. “I’ve been coaching for 27 years and a head coach for 17 years at a couple different high schools, and I’ve only experienced a couple players that had a football acumen like Trace. Trace had the best, by far, at an early age.”
All that might not mean a lot now, with McSorley nearing his 21st birthday and seeking his first collegiate start. But Pierce is convinced it means something.
“You can’t teach competitiveness,” he said. “You can’t teach toughness. You can’t teach heart. … And the leadership. He had those things. That was the fabric of who he was.”
Reporters wanted a closer look at the cut of his jib on Media Day, and so they flocked to the quarterbacks’ station in the northeast corner of Beaver Stadium. Eyewitness News. 6 News, with a mic attached to a hockey stick. Erie News Now. 12 WBNG. Radio PA. WYLN 35 Sports. And the usual print suspects, too.
McSorley, standing a few feet away from Stevens, cradling his cell in one hand and a water bottle in the other, stood tall against the rush. Or as tall as a guy listed at 6 feet (and 201 pounds) can.
You guys are fighting for the job, but you really get along, right?
An old favorite, answered predictably.
“If you look around at all the other quarterback controversies or whatever they’re called,” Stevens said, “I doubt there is a relationship as tight as me and Trace.”
“We’re competing,” McSorley said, “but it’s not like we’re rooting for the other guy to do bad.”
(Footnote: The two QBs walked out of the Beave together at the conclusion of Media Day, something duly noted by every cameraman. The scene seemed a little too perfect, a little too contrived. At the same time, there’s no reason to doubt they get along. Let’s move on.)
How ‘bout that new offense?
That is the great unknown, of course. Joe Moorhead, the incoming offensive coordinator and former Fordham coach, wants to play fast-break football, with his QB in the role of Chris Paul. Moorhead also said he would prefer a passer who can run, as opposed to a runner who can pass.
“That’s probably what I would want to hear,” McSorley said. “That’s what I would want to think of myself as.”
And he would like to believe that no matter the quarterback, success awaits.
“We’re expecting,” he said, “to put up a lot of points.”
Pierce sat in on some of the quarterback meetings back in the spring, and marveled at all that is asked of them – how “high-level intelligence” is required. Versatility, too.
Both qualities will manifest themselves when the Lions use a run-pass option, which figures to be often.
“I think that’s going to be one of the best things of our offense,” McSorley told the media horde, “because the defense can in one sense never be right.”
It went on like that for a while: One wave of reporters sweeping in, posing their questions, then moving on, only to be replaced by a new wave, with many of the same questions.
Yes, McSorley said, he feels a connection with Franklin, having committed to him while he was still coaching Vanderbilt, then following him to PSU. (“I trust him,” the QB said. “I think he trusts me. I think that’s huge for this team.”)
No, Stevens said, nobody on the team calls him “Sunshine,” after a character in the movie Remember the Titans, even though his flowing blond locks (since shorn) evoked that comparison. (“I think it might have been just like a media thing,” he said.)
Yes, McSorley said, he learned a lot last year from Hackenberg. (“He never got too high when the spotlight was huge, and would never get too low when people were bearing down on him,” he said. “He was always able to stay right in that even-keel lane.”)
No, Stevens said, he’s not the skinny kid he was when he arrived on campus in January 2015. He carried 178 pounds on his 6-4 frame then. He’s about 220 now. (“I think it was only a matter of time for me to grow anyway,” he said. “I’m more of a late bloomer.”)
Yes, McSorley said, he has tattoos of two Bible verses — Psalm 23:4 (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil …”) and Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”).
Certainly he left an imprint on a great many folks back in Virginia, starting with Serigne. The two of them have been close since elementary school, playing Little League baseball together before they formed a pitch-and-catch combination in football.
They also used to get together for marathon Xbox sessions at Cam’s house. Their game of choice was NCAA Football, and the idea was to win as many Heisman Trophies for your imaginary player as possible. They played so long, Serigne recalled, that he dozed off. He awoke to find McSorley still at it.
“Trace would have gotten two Heismans by the time I woke up,” Serigne said. “No matter what it is, he’s going to go all out.”
That being the case, he wasn’t surprised at what McSorley did in his first high school game, or thereafter. Pierce had suspicions about the freshman as well, having seen him excel in seven-on-seven camps in the summer leading up to that 2010 season, but nonetheless planned to build his offense around a running back named Michael Brownlee.
Then Brownlee broke his leg on his first carry of the season, and his backup sprained his foot, leaving the coach with no choice but to lean on his wet-behind-the-ears QB.
“I had to grow up pretty quick at that point,” McSorley said.
And he did, leading that drive that culminated in the decisive field goal in the closing seconds.
Briar Woods went 13-2 that year, 14-1 the year after, 15-0 during McSorley’s junior year, capped by a 52-0 thrashing of Heritage-Lynchburg in the state final. Never mind that the Falcons fell in the final the following year, or that Penn State lost to Georgia in their bowl meeting last season, despite McSorley’s TD passes to Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton.
Never mind any of that. The kid looks the part.
Now it’s a matter of playing it.