2016 Penn State Season Preview: Quarterbacks

By Chris Grovich on August 3, 2016 at 8:09 am
Trace McSorley responded well to unexpected playing time against Georgia.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

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If he gets some protection, the starter will have support from the most diverse, explosive set of skill players in at least a decade at Penn State.

For all the instability around the Penn State football program since 2011, the Nittany Lions have been surprisingly stable at quarterback. Matt McGloin (2011-2012) and Christian Hackenberg (2013-2015) were dependable, every-week options for Bill O’Brien and James Franklin.

Last Year

Hackenberg struggled through a disappointing 2015 season behind a porous offensive line. He generally took better care of the ball in comparison to 2014, but still completed just over half of his passes (53.5%). The discord between James Franklin and his quarterback was obvious and requires no further belaboring. It’s over. It’s fine. Everything is fine.

Franklin sacked offensive coordinator John Donovan 38 seconds after the regular season finale against Michigan State. In Donovan’s place, Joe Moorhead brings his no-huddle, spread, power-running hydra to Penn State after lighting the dang world on fire at Fordham. Moorhead succeeded with first-year quarterbacks and shoddy offensive lines. Welcome to Penn State, sir.

A pair of minimally-tested signal callers are fighting to lead the offense: Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens. The victor will have a wealth of talent around him, including (but not remotely limited to) RB Saquon Barkley, WR Chris Godwin, WR DaeSean Hamilton, and TE Mike Gesicki. Moorhead’s offense prioritizes quick decisions and accurate throws. A quarterback does not have to be 6’5” to succeed, which is great because your likely starter is...

The Starter(?)

#9 Trace McSorley (Jr./So., 6’0/201, consensus three-star recruit)

McSorley was a four-year starter in high school and led his team to four Virginia state championship games, winning three of them. He was part of James Franklin’s last recruiting class at Vanderbilt (as a safety) before following Franklin to Penn State. He wasn’t expected to see anything other than mop-up duty prior to the 2016 season, but an injury to Christian Hackenberg in the Taxslayer Bowl changed those plans. McSorley seemed appropriately rattled during his first few drives and eventually found himself in a 24-3 deficit against a talented and confident Georgia Bulldog defense. He settled in late in the third quarter and rallied his team to just a 24-17 deficit with a combination of pinpoint passes and drive-extending scrambles.

The enduring glimmers of hope from the Taxslayer Bowl were McSorley’s two precise darts for touchdowns to Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The Lewis touchdown was possible due to McSorley’s ability to extend a play with his legs and find Geno along the right edge of the endzone. The throw for Hamilton’s touchdown was a masterpiece delivered from the pocket under a heavy rush, lofted neatly between three Georgia defenders.
 

By the time Georgia batted down his game-ending Hail Mary, McSorley had alleviated many concerns about his undersized frame and his ability to move the ball against a tough, athletic defense.

McSorley continued to impress during the 2016 Blue-White Game, completing 23 of 27 passes for 281 yards and four tuddies against just one interception. STANDARD DISCLAIMER: It was the Blue-White Game. Still, he appeared accurate, poised, and in command of the limited spring playbook. While James Franklin continues to stress that he does not yet have a starting quarterback, all signs point to McSorley being the man when PSU opens up at home against Kent State. However, considering his physical stature and the number of hits he will likely absorb in the Moorhead offense, McSorley’s replacements will need to be ready.

The Backups

#2 Tommy Stevens (Fr. eligibility, 6’4/215, consensus three-star recruit)

Stevens originally committed to Kevin Wilson and Indiana, but changed his mind quickly after receiving his Penn State offer. He redshirted last season, so his only live action was this year’s Blue-White game. He didn’t get much of a chance to work with the first team offense, and bore the burden of leading the second-team offense against the first-team defense. They didn’t score.

Still, Stevens showed promise as a runner and certainly has some passing skills:

The best highlight of that film, naturally, is Stevens punting the ball and obliterating the punt returner. It’s practically B1Gception.

Stevens will need to be ready if McSorley struggles or get dinged. Perhaps he could also fill in as a gunner on special teams, sure, why not.

#7 Jake Zembiec (Fr. eligibility, 6’3/205, three/four-star recruit)

McSorley and Stevens both had their redshirt years, and 2016 will likely be a redshirt year for Zembiec unless things get a bit weird. He was an Elite 11 finalist and won New York state championships as a high school sophomore and senior (he broke his wrist at the beginning of his junior year). If his highlight film looks similar to those of McSorley and Stevens, it should -- James Franklin likes a specific kind of quarterback, and now he has three similar players in the system.

#16 Billy Fessler (Soph. eligibility, 5’11/188) and Michael Shuster (Fr. eligibility, 6’2/200)

Neither is expected to seriously threaten the starting lineup, but they do come with notable accomplishments. Fessler won the 2012 Pennsylvania AAAA state championship with Erie Cathedral Prep. Shuster originally planned to play as a preferred walk-on at Michigan, but changed his mind in February. He threw for 9,717 yards and 108 touchdowns at Camp Hill.

It seems like a crime to make that a throwaway line at the end of a long preview. HE THREW FOR ALMOST 10,000 YARDS IN HIGH SCHOOL.

Overview

An accurate quarterback can eat in this offense if his linemen keep him upright. The odds favor McSorley, although Franklin is encouraging competition by leaving the door slightly ajar for Stevens. The eventual starter will be surrounded by the most talented collection of skill players at Penn State since what, 2002 (Johnson, Johnson, and Johnson) or 1997 (Enis, Harris, Jurevicius, and Fields)? Maybe you have to go back even further to match the trio of Barkley, Godwin, and Hamilton -- and that’s without including Gesicki, Saeed Blacknall, Miles Sanders, Brandon Polk, DeAndre Thompkins, Mark Allen and many others.

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