STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It’s coming and he knows it, and there’s no avoiding it.
One of the greatest players in the long and storied history of Penn State football is just another guy. Again.
“I’ve been through this before,” Trace McSorley says without a hint of hesitation. “It’s kind of been a never-ending story on repeat.”
Not tall enough, not big enough. Decent arm strength. Doesn’t look the part.
Over and over and over since the first time he picked up a football in grade school. It’s not suddenly going to change this week at the Senior Bowl, when the idea of playing quarterback in the NFL comes squarely into focus.
“College production is important, but it’s not the be-all, end-all,” one NFL scout told Bleacher Report. “God knows how many quarterbacks have produced at the college level and crapped out here. The game changes, and sometimes what you’ve done before isn’t enough to translate to the next level.”
Like McSorley hasn’t heard that before.
When he left peewee football for middle school. When he left middle school for high school. When he left high school for college.
He never fit the quarterback mold, and he sure as hell doesn’t going into the biggest job interview of his life at the Senior Bowl.
He’s six feet and change, and he’s 205 pounds on a good day.
“How big is Drew Brees?” McSorley says matter-of-factly.
But it’s so much more than that. Brees and Russell Wilson and now Baker Mayfield—all under 6’1″—have managed to play at an elite level for two reasons: knowledge of the game and strong-to-elite arm strength.
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While McSorley’s intangibles (knowledge of the game, leadership, moxie) are off the charts, his arm strength is the clear obstacle. Throws he could get away with in college won’t work in the NFL.
Pass windows are tighter. Defensive backs are faster, more physical and given more leeway to use their hands.
The margin for error significantly decreases, and the ability to throw receivers open, or throw to spots, is as much about arm strength as it is knowing where to throw the ball.
“I will never say a guy can’t play in our league because I’ve seen too many times where those who you think can’t, not only can, but can at a high level,” another NFL scout told Bleacher Report. “I love the way [McSorley] plays. He’s a tough son of a gun. His teammates love him. He plays with attitude. You love those type of guys in your locker room and leading your team. But he will not get away with some of the throws he made at Penn State in our league.”
That’s almost identical to what he heard coming out of Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Virginia, where he started as a freshman, set school passing records and won three straight state titles. Would’ve been four in a row if Briar Woods could’ve held a lead in the state championship game his senior season.
But he didn’t fit the mold of Elite 11 quarterbacks, and no heavyweight Power Five programs were interested. Only Vanderbilt and coach James Franklin wanted him to play quarterback (other Power Five programs wanted him to play safety), so McSorley committed to play for the Commodores.
Then Bill O’Brien left Penn State for the NFL, and Franklin got the PSU job. The first day he was allowed by NCAA rules to call players, he called McSorley.
“Best call I’ve made,” Franklin says now. “This university may never see another player, another young man, like him.”
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In three years at Penn State, McSorley set school career records for wins, rushing yards and touchdowns by a quarterback, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offense.
But it’s so much more than wins and statistics. McSorley lifted the program from NCAA probation after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the school’s alleged cover-up and in two short years led an improbable run to a Big Ten title.
It’s about the face of a program changing the way things are done at Penn State. He helped to redefine a legacy of what was into what is. And he did so without the arm strength, size or any other NFL measurable of a quarterback.
Yet it always comes back to that.
“He has always heard you’re not good enough, and that has always been something that drives him,” says former Wake Forest tight end Cam Serigne, McSorley’s friend since kindergarten. “It’s surprising to me, after all he accomplished, that he’s hearing it again. The way he performed on the big stage, it’s ridiculous that anyone would question him.”
McSorley knows the questions are there. He’ll hear them at the official weigh-in at the Senior Bowl, and more than likely he will hear them no matter how well he practices during the week or how well he plays in Saturday’s game.
Wilson wasn’t selected by the Seahawks until the third round in 2012, and Mayfield, despite being the No.1 overall pick by the Browns, didn’t even have a first-round grade from some NFL teams.
The natural comparison for McSorley is Mayfield, who is just a hair under 6’1″ and 209 pounds and is now considered one of the game’s best young players after a breakout rookie season. They play with the same passion and purpose, with the same idea that the best part of being told you can’t is showing that you can and will.
The only glaring difference: Mayfield has an NFL arm. Just like Wilson. Just like Brees.
“[McSorley] prepares so well in terms of practice and film study and being ready for anything. Unbelievably competitive. Will make a big play when you absolutely have to have it,” says Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead, McSorley’s offensive coordinator at Penn State in 2016 and 2017. “But there are things he’s going to have to prove he can do consistently.”
When McSorley won his first state championship as a freshman, it was because a 140-pound quarterback stayed out of the way of a loaded team. When he won his second and third, he was the caretaker. When he nearly won a fourth, a magical run had simply run out of fuel.
When he led Penn State to the Big Ten championship, it was because Ohio State blew a game against Penn State. That narrative was reinforced when the Buckeyes were selected to the College Football Playoff instead of the Lions.
Yet year after year, big game after big game, McSorley produced. That can’t be overlooked.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told you’re not good enough—more times than I can count and at every level,” McSorley said. “When I step on the field, all of that nonsense doesn’t mean a thing because there’s something I can do about it. There’s only one way to stop it.”
Even if there’s no avoiding it.