A little boy dressed in a blue-and-white No. 9 jersey stood behind a partition at the end of a Ravens training camp practice last week with a white headband covering over half his head, waiting on the sideline for the former Penn State quarterback who’d inspired the look.
Trace McSorley remembers being that kid at training camp, waiting for the pros to come out. Now that he’s on the other side of the rope, the rookie is willing to do whatever it takes to stay on the field rather than the sideline — even if it means temporarily diverting his focus from his duties as a quarterback.
“At this point, I’m just trying to come out and do whatever I can to be able to get on the field and get on the active roster,” McSorley said Thursday.
Changes required: McSorley’s arrival in Baltimore has required changes both big and small. He’s discarded the white Nike headband he wore throughout a record-setting Nittany Lions career in favor of a black headband fashioned from a cut-up T-shirt. And even with backup quarterback Robert Griffin III sidelined several weeks with a hand injury, McSorley is continuing to cross-train at special teams, where Ravens officials envision him as a potential weapon.
Until the Ravens drafted him in the sixth round in April, McSorley had always seen himself as a quarterback, first and foremost. As a Northern Virginia native who grew up as a fan of the Washington Redskins, he used to root for Griffin. Now they’re teammates.
“I remember watching him in high school and seeing him and everything that he did,” McSorley said. “All the experience that he’s had, I think it’s something that could be really beneficial to me.”
Different role: After the 2019 draft, general manager Eric Decosta said the Ravens were looking to add fast, athletic players who could complement quarterback Lamar Jackson’s explosive skill set. At Penn State, McSorley starred as a dual-threat quarterback, just as Jackson did at Louisville and Griffin at Baylor.
But the Ravens have rarely carried three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster under coach John Harbuagh, and during offseason workouts, it became apparent that McSorley might have to take a different route to ensure his spot. In addition to quarterback, he saw time as a returner, holder and blocker.
Athletic gifts: It wasn’t the first time a team had made use of his athletic gifts. McSorley also played safety in high school, and Division I schools like Vanderbilt recruited him to play that position. In a 2017 loss to Ohio State, McSorley found himself as the lead blocker for teammate Saquon Barkley on a 36-yard touchdown run. A year later, he caught up to a Kent State defender for a touchdown-saving stop after an unlucky interception. At the NFL scouting combine, he recorded the fastest 40-yard dash of all the quarterbacks (4.57 seconds).
But despite his versatility, McSorley had never played on special teams. As a quarterback, McSorley didn’t even attend special teams meetings in college, so he’s trying to absorb everything he hears.
He’s focusing on getting the fundamentals, techniques and schemes down, and he said he’s starting to feel more comfortable. He also tries to watch as much film of Ravens special teams standout Anthony Levine Sr. as possible.
“Then when I go out there, it's just kind of play fast, do my job and kind of have the hair-on-fire mentality,” McSorley said. “That's one of the things that I kind of tried to do when I played defense back in the day, so just trying to tap into that.”
Comparisons to Taysom Hill: McSorley has been most often compared with New Orleans Saints third-string quarterback Taysom Hill, a Swiss Army knife-type player who returned kickoffs, fielded a punt, had six special teams tackles and blocked a punt last season. McSorley said it’s hard to say at this point whether the comparison is accurate.
While he thinks he could contribute in similar ways, McSorley said he’s always felt he’ll end up as a quarterback.
“I want to be working on my way to being a starting quarterback,” said McSorley, who set Penn State records for passing yards, completions, passing touchdowns and total offense as a three-year starter. “So right now, it's focusing on my development as a quarterback and doing everything the coaches ask me as far as a special teams role, whatever it might be.”
That’s why he was drafted, quarterbacks coach James Urban said — to be a quarterback.
Getting chance at QB: At the start of training camp, McSorley didn’t get many repetitions under center, with the majority going to Jackson and Griffin. So McSorley turned all those snaps on the sideline into mental reps, going through reads as if he were in the pocket himself. When McSorley returned home at night, he took the time to study the plays again.
McSorley’s role changed Saturday, just three days into training camp, when Griffin fractured a bone in his throwing hand during practice. With Griffin out, McSorley has gone from taking less than a third of the snaps to almost half.
“You never hope this, you never wish this, but it’s an opportunity,” McSorley said Sunday of Griffin’s injury.
And being out there on the field makes a difference, he said.
“You can go through everything on paper, but it's different once you're in there and experienced,” McSorley said. “So just to be able to get in and get these reps, I think, is big and really important."
Beyond helping him get a feel for the offense and how it runs, McSorley’s increased workload has helped him build chemistry with receivers, a focus of his.
Still practicing with special teams: Even with Griffin out — the Ravens have said he’ll return in a few weeks — McSorley is still practicing on special teams. In recent practices, he’s worked as a blocker on the kick and punt return units.
“I think he’s still going to be involved, and we’re going to use him as we see fit and try to just continue to get him better, so he could have an opportunity,” special teams coordinator Chris Horton said.
Whether McSorley is throwing slant routes out of the shotgun formation or blocks on a kick return, Urban said the real focus is just proving that he belongs in the NFL.
“So what does that mean? Whatever we ask him to do, he’s got to be productive at it,” Urban said. “And he’s been nothing but uphill.”