Lions’ success can be Trace(d) to McSorley

UNIVERSITY PARK — In Trace they trust.

Hopes are high for Penn State this season primarily because of Trace McSorley.

The Nittany Lions are ranked in the top 10 in the preseason primarily because of Trace McSorley.

There are College Football Playoff hopes, primarily because … well, you get the picture.

Pretty much anyone who follows the program closely knows there are serious concerns about the defense. The linebacker situation remains a mystery and could present big problems, and the defensive line has been hit hard by graduations and retirements due to injuries.

The Lions are going to give up a lot of points. Bank on it.

But there also is great faith that the offense will put up huge point totals once again, and that Penn State can beat anybody on the schedule in a shootout. Even without leaping, fancy-footwork running back Saquon Barkley, and without catch-everything tight end Mike Gesicki, and without reliable and excellent route-running receiver DaeSean Hamilton, and without brilliant, program-changing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

Have no fear, Trace is still here.

The senior quarterback’s skill set, his intelligence, his leadership and his will to win, while playing in an offense perfectly suited for him, are essentially the reasons all hopes for the season exist.

Yes, there are plenty of other outstanding players on the team — a result of excellent recruiting — and a hugely favorable home schedule is another major reason for optimism.

But make no mistake about it: McSorley’s performance could make or break this season for Penn State as much as any single player on any team in college football.

He already has set numerous Penn State single-game and career records, and by the end of this season, he will own just about every school passing mark.

“Trace had the characteristics that I think are most important,” coach James Franklin said when asked if McSorley’s success has changed how he looks at quarterback prospects. “He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s a winner. Has been that way at every single level. He’s got a lot of the desirable skills and traits that everybody’s looking for.

“The thing is, he doesn’t walk through the door and pass that eyeball test, but I think the positive thing is that eyeball test is changing. I mean, you look at last year’s Heisman Trophy winner (Baker Mayfield). You look at (him being) the first pick in the draft. You look at Drew Brees. You look at Russell Wilson. In the old days, you never saw those guys in the NFL.”

The comparisons between Mayfield and McSorley are natural, even if they’re not fully accurate. Mayfield is 6-1 and had to walk on at Oklahoma after doing the same at Texas Tech. He became a star and won the Heisman last year at Oklahoma.

McSorley is a leading Heisman candidate entering this season, so everyone is looking to see if another smaller, once under-the-radar quarterback can make it two in a row.

“Those comparisons are going to come,” McSorley said. “I think one thing that we both do when we play is that we both tend to play with a lot of passion and a lot of excitement, and I think that really shows when you watch Baker on film and try and take what he does, is that every time he’s out there, he’s out there having fun.

“Obviously our statures are similar, and we play in similar kind of offenses — spread offenses that utilize mobile quarterbacks and things like that. But that’s probably the biggest comparison and most common is that we’re most alike in that we’re both extremely competitive and love to go out and play football and play with a lot of passion.”

When it comes to style of play, though, McSorley doesn’t compare himself to Mayfield.

“As far as guys I try to mold my game after, a couple guys,” McSorley said. “Drew Brees is someone I’ve always loved to watch and study and see what makes him great, and that’s someone I continue to try and look at. Russell Wilson, another guy from Virginia, who is similar stature and similar kind of play style.”

New offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will be running the same schemes and plays as Moorhead, so McSorley will be dangerous because he fully understands the offense. He and Rahne also have a great relationship, going back to when Rahne recruited McSorley in high school, where the quarterback reached four state championship games and won three.

Did Rahne ever imagine McSorley being this good?

“Any time that you recruit a player, you see him being a starter and a championship football player,” Rahne said. “I don’t think he’s necessarily exceeded my expectations or anything like that, just because I knew the type of person he was, the type of family he came from, and I watched him play a lot of games. He won a lot of football games in high school.”

The past few months must have been surreal for McSorley, seeing himself on magazine covers and websites all over the country as a Heisman contender and, for some publications, ranked as the best quarterback in college football entering the season.

He called it an “honor” getting all the attention, but stressed that it hasn’t changed him or his focus at all.

No one knows better than Rahne what McSorley is like away from the spotlight, having known the young man since high school. So Rahne was the perfect person to ask if all the notoriety has changed the quarterback.

“He hasn’t changed,” Rahne said. “I think probably the best person on the planet to ask that to is probably my 9-year-old son, Ryder. He couldn’t tell you that Trace has changed one little bit, since he’s been 6 years old till now. The kid is the exact same kid, and that’s what makes him great and that’s what makes him who he is and what he is.”