Trace McSorley hears it so often, he reacts physically without thinking, squaring up his shoulders to sit or standing up a little straighter.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback is too amiable by nature to really show his frustration by the fact that the first thing someone notices about him, if they notice him at all, is his generously-listed 6-foot frame. It’s been that way for almost a decade now, on various teams and at different camps as he’s watched some of his teammates shoot past him once he got to high school.
“Yeah, I hear it. I know it,” he said politely, squirming a bit, back against the wall in one of the football offices at the Lasch Building in March, just before the start of spring ball.
“All right, yeah, I’m not as tall. Let’s move on.”
But his former head coach has just about had enough.
“He had to go through the same thing with me,” said Charlie Pierce, who, with McSorley, led Briar Woods High School in Virginia to three state titles in four years.
McSorley also earned All-State honors as a safety and recorded 100 tackles and eight interceptions in his junior and senior years. He wasn’t highly recruited as a quarterback, with the “loftiest” offer coming from then-Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin, but instead was attracting a lot of attention at the Division-I level from coaches who wanted him at safety full time.
“They’d say ‘Oh, he’s 6-foot. They’re all playing safety in college,” said Pierce, his voice rising. “I’d tell all these coaches we went against in high school (who said that), and all these recruiters; they’d say ‘Oh he’s better suited for safety’ and I’d say ‘Well, he’s an even better quarterback.’
“They all said ‘Oh he can’t do that,’ and he won three state championships and threw it back in their faces. I said ‘Here’s a guy who went 55-5, won three state championships, ranks third in the state history in yards, was All-State on both sides of the ball, and people still were saying it ...
“I mean, in 60 games, we were laughin’ (at them) 55 times.”
What Pierce knows better about McSorley are the “X-factors” of the kid who, without prompting, chose to work out with the offensive linemen in summer and fall camps.
“The linemen loved it,” said Pierce. “Because what does that translate into? That translates into when you’re in the game and it’s a crucial time, and he tells the guys ‘Hey, we’re gonna get this play right now.’ And the lineman goes ‘Well I’m gonna block my butt off to make this play happen,’ because Trace was right there with him in the training days and the sweating days and the aches and pains. He was right there with ‘em. It’s his nature to draw you in to being with him and playing for him.”
Franklin said that from the moment McSorley stepped on campus, coaches noticed other players gravitate to him.
“I don’t care what state it is and I don’t care what level it is,” he said during Penn State’s last week of spring ball. “You don’t go to four championship games without having some other things about you; some moxie, some leadership.”
Pierce also knows all about McSorley’s quiet, competitive streak.
“I remember talking to somebody, he got beat on some video game and spent 12 hours figuring out the game so he could beat that guy next time he played,” he laughed.
The high school coach, who has watched McSorley play since the fifth grade, knows the kid who thrives in the spread offense, relishes run-pass options (RPOs), excels in slight-of-hand and footwork; in the read-and-feint of opposing defenses.
“Trace is like a magician with that ball,” he said. “I mean there were times when I didn’t know if he had it or handed it off. I didn’t know. We had this one play in the boundary, so he faked (the handoff) and pulled it. I didn’t know he pulled it. And he got to the sideline and then he ran 80 yards for a touchdown.” (McSorley runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash.)
Pierce said the next week, two defensive tackles absolutely blew up his offensive line deep in his team’s own territory. He said he was ready to lay into the linemen, thinking the play was ruined.
“And then I look up and Trace is in the end zone, I was still looking inside and had no clue he pulled the ball!”
Pierce adjusted his own offense to allow more RPOs after losing two running backs to injury and when handed the keys, McSorley excelled.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s uptempo spread and zone-read concepts are an exciting prospect for McSorley, who said in his first meeting with Moorhead that the new coordinator told him he wanted to blend an Oregon-like notoriety for playing fast and putting up points with Penn State’s strong defensive tradition.
The young quarterback is just excited to watch his teammates thrive in such an offense, and has been getting his receivers together outside of spring practices to practice routes and plays. He watches film before he goes to bed and has put on a few pounds of muscle without losing his speed. Franklin has yet to name a starter (and likely won’t until the fall), but McSorley is the definitive frontrunner to replace Christian Hackenberg.
“That’s why I came here,” said McSorley. “To be a starting quarterback. To run out of that tunnel and start for Penn State. To join that fraternity here ... (Matt) McGloin, Kerry Collins, Hack ... I want it. But I also know I want it just as bad as the next guy.”
McSorley’s imminent thrust into the spotlight aside, Pierce knows the quiet former prep star quarterback who was vocal with his team but kept to himself during his everyday life; who walked through the halls at Briar Woods and was hardly recognized.
“Don’t let the game get bigger than you,” McSorley’s dad, Rick, likes to tell his son.
“Don’t let the game be bigger than me,” McSorley repeats — and while the irony of the statement doesn’t escape him, he quite literally lives it in more ways than one.
As Pierce listened to the broadcasters comment on McSorley’s size just before he took the field against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl after Hackenberg went down with a shoulder injury, McSorley was listening to then-offensive line coach Herb Hand say the same.
“Coach Hand was like, ‘He’s a little bit smaller guys, so you’re gonna have to move around,’” McSorley recalls. “But I said ‘You guys stay in front. Block your man. Get the free man, hopefully I can make ‘em miss if I have to.’”
McSorley took the snap out of the shotgun and stood in the pocket, feet bouncing a little, as Georgia’s Leonard Floyd, a 6-foot-3, 231-pound outside linebacker and Lott Impact Trophy watchlist player, bore down on him after powering past the offensive line.
Then, just a millisecond before Floyd’s outstretched and oversized hands reached his arm, McSorley threaded a dart of a touchdown pass over the seam to DaeSean Hamilton in triple coverage against one of the best passing defenses in the country.
“‘Man, he got lucky there,’” Pierce remembers the pundits on TV remarking.
Wrong, he said.
“Deep down in my gut, I knew he knew where he had to throw that ball to be successful. The commentators, I said, ‘They don’t know him.’
“They don’t know Trace McSorley.”