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McSorley gives PSU glimpse at future

MARK WOGENRICH
(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley didn't stop swatting hands and heads on the Penn State sideline until every teammate got a turn. Behind him, departing quarterback Christian Hackenberg followed, smiling at every step.

Trace McSorley, seen here in action in last season's TaxSlayer Bowl, is the favorite to be Penn State's starting quarterback this season.

Saturday's TaxSlayer Bowl, in every literal and metaphorical sense, marked a guard change at quarterback for Penn State. Injured in the first half — and having declared for the NFL draft following the game — Hackenberg delivered an unplanned torch pass to McSorley, the sprightly redshirt freshman whom teammates called a winner.

McSorley ran with that torch, nearly rallying Penn State from a 24-3 deficit to a chance at tying on the last play. When the comeback fell short in a 24-17 loss to Georgia, McSorley's teammates — including many on defense — sought out the quarterback to pat his back, a gesture that went noticed all over EverBank Field.

"He shouldn't hang his head at all today," defensive lineman Anthony Zettel said. "He went out there and battled the whole game."

McSorley is a much different quarterback than Hackenberg, one who likely will fit new coordinator Joe Moorhead's offense a little more fluidly next season. At 6-0, 195 pounds, he's 50 pounds lighter than Hackenberg, something to watch should the sacks continue to test the durability of Penn State's quarterbacks.

But McSorley has a better escape hatch than Hackenberg (he rushed for 31 yards) and will look more comfortable in the zone read as he performs it more often. Further, he's a spirited quarterback who brought a fresh energy to the field.

"I noticed the shift in him as well once we started making some plays, scored some touchdowns," head coach James Franklin said. "He came to the sideline, was fiery, had some emotion. That's the next step. At that point up until then, he was kind of doing his job.

"At the quarterback position, you need that leadership as well. After he made some plays, he came to the sidelines talking, with a lot of emotion, talking to the guys, encouraging the guys. That's the next step for him."

McSorley came to Penn State with a winning pedigree, having led Briar Woods (Va.) High to four state championships and a 55-5 record in four seasons.

Franklin and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne have raved over McSorley's work with the second-team offense, saying he moves the ball well, particularly in two-minute drills. Against Georgia, McSorley took a few too many checkdowns with no timeouts in the last two minutes, but it was by far the most stressful situation of his young career.

He'll work through that, as evidenced by the situational moxie he showed on previous plays. McSorley threw two fourth-down completions to Geno Lewis, including one in the back of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown.

Later, McSorley sailed a lovely ball to DaeSean Hamilton for a 20-yard score that pulled Penn State within a touchdown. Hamilton has caught plenty of passes from McSorley in practice. He called that the best ever.

"It was a top-notch throw," Hamilton said.

Following that touchdown, McSorley cut loose on the Penn State sideline, lighting its fuse with his race up and down. Hackenberg loved it. And McSorley deferred to his mentor, calling Hackenberg "instrumental" to the team's comeback.

In that moment, Penn State's offensive leadership future was on display. It was as well on the final drive, when Penn State took over with 1:52 and 75 yards between it and a tie game.

McSorley and freshman running back Saquon Barkley took the reins in that huddle, declaring it "gutcheck time."

"This is what we dream about: a chance to go down, make a game-winning drive and win the bowl game for your team and university," McSorley said. "That's what I told them. It's now or never."

That spirit almost lifted McSorley to an unexpected comeback. He's a quarterback who didn't lack for confidence before and is brimming with it now.

What's next?

"Now the real work starts," he said.