Spotlight on: Trace McSorley
McSorley was mostly an unknown when he took the field for last year's opener as a first-time starter for Penn State. After a shaky first month, he gradually mastered first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead's new offense and wound up setting program records for passing yards (3,614), touchdown passes (29) and total offense (3,979). He set Big Ten championship records with 384 yards through the air and four TD throws in the win over Wisconsin that got the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl.
Entering 2017, the 6-foot, 202-pound redshirt junior and Heisman Trophy candidate is firmly entrenched as the leader of the offense and ready for new challenges in Moorhead's run-pass option offense. Even though he lost his favorite target, Chris Godwin, to the NFL, McSorley is expected to continue to favor the long ball with a deep corps of receivers. He averaged 9.34 yards per passing attempt last season and completed 64 passes of 20 yards or more, including 20 of his 29 TD strikes. He also rushed for 365 yards and seven touchdowns, showing nimble feet in escaping the rush and finding open targets.
Asked about the next step for McSorley, Moorhead replied, "To continue his overall development by working on his preparation, his effort, and his execution." He would like to see McSorley's completion percentage, 57.9 percent, climb to somewhere in the 60s, in addition to a better conversion percentage on third down, especially third and short. Certainly an improved offensive line will give him more time in the pocket, enabling him perhaps to cut down on the 24 sacks he absorbed last season. Though McSorley threw just eight interceptions in 2016, one pick led to USC's winning field goal in the Rose Bowl, and another snuffed a late rally at Pittsburgh, so those mistakes must be addressed.
Of course, matching last year's numbers might be challenging, but McSorley has the arm and confidence to keep the offense moving and the defense off balance, and in turn keep the Nittany Lions in the hunt for a repeat Big Ten title and perhaps a College Football Playoff berth.
In the wings: Tommy Stevens
Stevens, a redshirt sophomore, is more of the prototype of the modern quarterback at 6-4 and 226 pounds. It's probably safe to say he could start for a few teams in the Big Ten. Moorhead said Stevens has made "tremendous strides" in his mental approach to playing the position, which is why the Nittany Lions likely wouldn't miss a beat if McSorley were to go down. Stevens had an impressive performance in the Blue-White Game last spring, completing 17 of 24 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. In seven games last season, he mostly ran the ball, with 21 carries against just three passes. He averaged 9.4 yards per rush and scored a touchdown against Iowa on a 13-yard jet sweep. Most of his snaps were after the game was out of reach, but he will need to identify open receivers better this season if a game is still competitive.
Who’s No. 3?
Head coach James Franklin prompted a few smiles on media day when he said, "One of the more important things on my mind is, who's the No. 3?" But he was dead serious. The two quarterbacks vying for the job are redshirt freshman Jake Zembiec and true freshman Sean Clifford. Franklin would prefer to redshirt Clifford, who won a state championship for St. Xavier of Cincinnati as a high school senior, but apparently the battle is close. Franklin said should Clifford win the job, he would be more likely to keep his redshirt and play the No. 4 quarterback late in a game, much as he did with McSorley when he was a true freshman.