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Penn State QB Trace McSorley's 'inevitable' path to first career start

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorely finished 14-of-27 passing for 142 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, after replacing injured Christian Hackenberg in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia last season. Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

Even at the age of 4, Trace McSorley didn’t want to stop wearing his football uniform.

For a year and a half, he paraded around his Virginia home in a Dan Marino Halloween costume -- complete with a Miami Dolphins plastic helmet -- and tended to playfully tackle whatever crossed his path, including his younger sister.

He’d watch whatever football game popped up on the living room TV. He’d chase after footballs like a dog fetching Frisbees. Later, in grade school, when his teammate missed a week of practice for a Hawaiian vacation, McSorley replaced him at quarterback, taking to the triple-option so deftly that his teammate returned a tight end.

This entire week, leading up to McSorley’s first career start Saturday against Kent State, has been a long time coming for the Penn State redshirt sophomore. His dream of becoming a big-time college quarterback didn’t materialize until high school, but he seemed destined for this path long before that.

"He always thought that this was kind of in his DNA, in his destiny," McSorley’s father, Rick, said. "Football’s just always been around him, and he’s just always wanted to play."

In a lot of ways, he’s still the same kid, the same quarterback. The quiet signal-caller, who sometimes ate lunch by himself, was always one of the smaller competitors on the field. However, he played less like Rudy and more like Ray Lewis. As a 5-foot-9, 150-pound high school freshman, McSorley still played the role of enforcer on his varsity lacrosse team. And he remained unflappable on the gridiron.

In his first varsity start, as a rail-thin freshman, the game plan simply entailed handing off to the more-experienced running backs. But on the first play, Briar Woods' back broke his leg. Two quarters later, his upperclassman reserve went down with an injury.

McSorley wound up throwing 32 passes in that opener, guiding his team to a game-winning 87-yard drive in the closing minutes and completing two key fourth-down passes. The Virginia native, who still has a Michael Vick poster hanging above his childhood bed, went on to lead his team to four state title games and three championships. He never panicked.

"He rarely showed emotion; he was just beyond his years," said Charlie Pierce, his high school coach at Briar Woods. "His internal makeup was always being that of a quarterback."

At Penn State, McSorley’s mentality hasn’t at all strayed from that cool persona. When Christian Hackenberg left January’s TaxSlayer Bowl with a shoulder injury against Georgia -- the nation’s No. 1-rated pass defense -- McSorley calmly jogged to the huddle, while the broadcasters bemoaned Penn State’s lost chance at a comeback.

The opposite nearly held true. The 6-foot, 205-pound replacement finished 14-of-27 passing for 142 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. McSorley’s QBR was 20 points better than Hackenberg’s; he even added 31 rushing yards.

"It was really a surprise in having a freshman come in and be ready to play against one of the top defenses in the nation -- and he actually did really well," center Brian Gaia said Wednesday. "I think that really secured our trust in him."

Penn State coach James Franklin almost seemed surprised Tuesday when he was asked about McSorley's nerves. He just shook his head and said he didn’t even plan to pull the quarterback aside about his first career start.

McSorley, whose "sixth-grade moxie" even impressed the high school coach, didn’t need it.

Wideout DaeSean Hamilton felt the same way.

"He doesn’t really come off as a guy that can be very emotional," Hamilton said. "I haven’t seen any nervousness from him."

That’s not to say McSorley never shows emotion. But it’s rare. McSorley’s father remembers how his son once flexed his muscles after scoring a touchdown in an important rivalry game, and both he and McSorley’s high school coach recall how he started off a little "high and hard" in a few of the championship games. But that’s it.

Those closest to McSorley still believe this week, this first career start, was inevitable. They say he couldn’t be more ready, or calmer, for Saturday afternoon’s game against Kent State.

After all, McSorley’s whole life -- from Halloween costumes to high school comebacks and bowl games -- has led up to this point. Call it destiny, fortune or coincidence, but on Saturday, it finally has to be called reality.