Trace McSorley could hardly believe the words that left his lips.
“Now I’m an alumni, which is weird,” McSorley said with a half-smile in his post-Citrus Bowl press conference. “But I’m excited to watch what those guys are going to do. I’m excited to see where the leaders of those young guys are going to be able to carry this team.”
He’s not alone, either. As No. 9 hobbled off the turf field and into the locker room for one final time, those in the stands and on the sidelines alike had the same questions on their minds: What now? What’s next for the Nittany Lions?
Those who laid the foundation had answers for what’s to come.
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“The losses that we had this year, they’re hard. They hard for us to swallow. They’re hard for our fan base to swallow,” head coach James Franklin said. “But we played a lot of young players this year. I think there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of hope for our future.”
Added McSorley: “I don’t want to put a ceiling on them. Because I really think they can go as far as they want to.”
That might be hard for the everyday fan to envision days following a loss. Tuesday marked the end of an era that didn’t finish the way the Nittany Lions wanted, leaving frustrated after a mistake-filled Citrus Bowl. It was an era that fell short of making program history, as Penn State failed to secure a third consecutive 10-win season, which would have been a first in its Big Ten tenure.
Between players leaving, the firing of wide receivers coach David Corley and the question mark that hangs over Phil Galiano’s head, Penn State enters the 2019 offseason in a fluid state. But if you were looking in the right places, the future of Penn State was on display in Orlando.
Down the road from Camping World Stadium, five 2019 signees — running backs Devyn Ford and Noah Cain, wideout John Dunmore, linebacker Brandon Smith and quarterback Michael Johnson Jr. — participated in Under Armour All-American showcases. That quintet headlines a recruiting class that ranks No. 10 in the country with only 18 signatures. Per 247 Sports, the Nittany Lions’ average player rating is 92.12, behind only Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.
Members of the No. 6-ranked 2018 class performed in the Sunshine State, too. True freshman Micah Parsons had 13 tackles against Kentucky. True freshman Pat Freiermuth caught his eighth touchdown of the season. True freshman Jahan Dotson started again, while Justin Shorter showed promise. McSorley singled out Shorter in his postgame press conference, a winding 90-second answer about the future of Penn State football.
“He grew leaps and bounds, and that can be said for all those guys,” the quarterback added. “They just continue to get better and better.”
As McSorley spoke, Franklin sat next to him and hung on every word. The coach appeared to be fighting back tears, realizing that he’ll no longer have McSorley around. He won’t have the program’s most prolific passer on the field at Beaver Stadium or in the Lasch Building on Tuesdays, breaking down film and mentoring the Nittany Lions’ young quarterbacks. He won’t have his leadership, his arm or his heart.
But Franklin will have Parsons. He’ll have Freiermuth, Shorter and Dotson. He’ll have KJ Hamler, Yetur Gross-Matos, Cam Brown, John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields. He’ll have Cain, Ford, Smith, Johnson and Dunmore.
Think back to Dabo Swinney’s first five years at Clemson. The four-time national coach of the year won 47 games in that span on the shoulders of quarterback Tajh Boyd, who set program records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. There were questions surrounding the program when Boyd moved on. Clemson responded with three national championship appearances in the next five years.
After 45 wins in his first five years at Penn State, can Franklin have Swinney-level success in 2019 and beyond?
“I think these guys have a tremendous amount of potential,” fifth-year senior and captain Nick Scott said. “I think that these guys, if they do everything right and everybody’s bought into the same message, I think playoffs and national championships are really realistic for this team.”