Brandon Bell liked what he had seen from Trace McSorley at Penn State practice. Now he watched with interest from the sideline as McSorley took over at quarterback in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl game against Georgia, his first significant playing time with the Nittany Lions.
Again, Bell was impressed. McSorley's performance gave him and his teammates confidence that McSorley could lead the team when he became the full-time quarterback after Christian Hackenberg departed for the NFL.
He has done the job. To Bell, a senior linebacker and co-captain, the Lions are McSorley's team.
"I let Trace know all the time. This is his team, and he has to run it that way with that mind-set," he said this week. "Everybody saw against Georgia last year in the bowl game. That was really the moment.
"I knew Trace had ability coming out of high school. We saw him in practice. First time on a big stage, he walked in like he was prepared for that moment against a good opponent in Georgia. I wasn't worried about Trace since then. I knew he was going to be able to handle the big moments."
Running back Saquon Barkley called McSorley "the leader of this team."
"He's not a front-running leader," he said. "He's going to bring guys together to talk before games, during games, or after games if we need it. One thing I love about Trace, he's not the tallest guy, biggest guy, but he doesn't have quit in him. When you have a guy like that in the backfield, you know you can always win, and you want to play 10 times harder for him."
McSorley, a 6-foot, 205-pound redshirt sophomore, has led Penn State to a seven-game winning streak, a No. 7 position in the College Football Playoff rankings, and a shot at the Big Ten championship game heading into the final regular-season game, Saturday against Michigan State.
McSorley is third in the Big Ten in total offense (269.0 yards per game) and fourth in passing yards (236.4). He averages 15.57 yards per completion, which is second in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He has shown toughness on 124 rushing attempts counting scrambles and sacks, good for 359 yards and six touchdowns.
Statistics aside, however, McSorley does the little things to also help his team, according to Bell.
"Not every play is going to be an exciting touchdown, a 50-yard throw," he said. "When he's running three extra yards out of a sack or something like that, that's huge for the game. I think that's overshadowed by the big pays he makes.
"Whether throwing the ball away, avoiding a sack, anything positive is great. I think that's huge for this team. Those hidden yards have gone a long way this season. I think that's kind of what impresses me the most."
Penn State coach James Franklin said "everyone on the team believes in him," citing McSorley's work habits, preparation, and confidence.
"He's also very positive," he said. "You never see any bad body language from him. You never see him yelling at guys when guys make mistakes, drop balls, give up sacks, whatever it may be. He's really steady and consistent. I think that's appreciated. More than anything, it's his work ethic and his approach, his belief in himself, his belief in his teammates."