STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There are a few octaves that separate everyday Trace McSorley from the entertainingly bold frontman for one of college football's most exciting offenses. The onstage Saturday McSorley has a different voice, infused with enough extra bass that his closest friends in State College did a double take the first time he led Penn State out of the locker room as its starting quarterback.
Billy Fessler, McSorley's roommate, has probably had a conversation with his fellow quarterback darn near every day since the two arrived on campus in 2014. A year ago, listening to his typically soft-spoken buddy rally the troops before the season opener against Kent State, Fessler's reaction was simple.
"What the hell was that?"
Some five months earlier, Rick McSorley had the same reaction -- verbatim -- when he sat in the stands of Beaver Stadium and watched Fessler underhanding an imaginary baseball in his son's direction after a touchdown in Penn State's spring game. McSorley, as anyone who's watched him play since then likely already knows, took a giant hack at Fessler's toss, and both turned to admire the imaginary ball sail high and far beyond an imaginary outfield fence. Penn State's coaches smiled. They had themselves a home run hitter.
"There have been players who have pushed the envelope," McSorley says. "Guys like LaVar [Arrington], even [former quarterback Matt] McGloin to an extent, but it wasn't like the whole team. I think that's where we're different than Penn State teams in the past. We're that hair-on-fire team."
McSorley is sitting in an office inside the Lasch Building on Penn State's campus. A baseball cap casts a shadow on most of his face and covers almost all of his dark, curly hair, which seems to be the furthest thing from on fire at the moment. He's wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt and speaking with a tone that better fits his major (accounting) than that of a quarterback who has accounted for 19 touchdowns in his past five games. If you're not familiar with the logo of the exclusive Elite 11 quarterback camp that's stamped on his black mesh shorts, good luck picking him out a lineup of any five upperclassmen walking around Penn State's campus.
You've seen shoulder-shimmy McSorley. This is shoulder-shrug McSorley. This is the McSorley who was seated in the Nittany Lions' meeting room last spring when offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead introduced himself to his new team. Moorhead stood in front of a group that had averaged a dismal 21.9 points per game during the past two seasons and was losing a 6-foot-4, 225-pound NFL darling in Christian Hackenberg who looked and carried himself like he had been carved from the granite of one of those old quarterbacking mines in central Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, Moorhead made a few promises.
"We're going to be the best offense in the Big Ten," he told them. "We're going to win a Big Ten championship, and we're going to have fun while we're doing it."
The general reaction that day, according to tight end Mike Gesicki, was, "All right, bud. That's easy for you to say." All three of Moorhead's predictions proved to be correct by the end of the 2016 season.
The mandate for fun was the first piece, and arguably the most important, that had to fall into place. Moorhead pushed his budding stars -- McSorley, Gesicki and Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley -- to celebrate more that first spring. He laid out explicit instructions. McSorley recalls one huddle during an offense vs. defense segment of practice in which Moorhead rattled off a play call and then told the intended receiver to "throw a dab" when he crossed the goal line. The rest of the offense was told they should join him in the end zone shortly thereafter.
McSorley concedes he probably needed the practice. During a four-year high school career in which he went 55-5 as a starter and won three straight championships, touchdowns were not necessarily a cause for celebration.
"I don't want to say it was expected after a while, but you'd go in and you win and it's on to the next one," he said.
The most common adjective that McSorley's coaches and teammates use to describe the person they see from Sunday through Friday is "businesslike." This is the guy who in high school preferred to duck into a guidance counselor's office to eat his lunch in a quiet corner rather than soak in the big-man-on-campus limelight of being a star quarterback. It's natural that some of that started to slip into his demeanor at quarterback as the wins piled up at Briar Woods High in Northern Virginia.
That's not to say that Saturday McSorley is entirely new. Briar Woods coach Charlie Pierce says his former star always had "moxie." McSorley chose the word "exuberance" to describe his playing style. Usually, though, he reserved his muscle-flexing, trash-talking side for when he was working as an all-state safety in high school.
He just had to figure out how to use that same attitude on offense and do it in front of 100,000 fans who took a lot of pride in being part of one of the most traditionally buttoned-up programs in college football.
Not long into that first spring under Moorhead, McSorley and Fessler put their heads together to come up with a plan for some choreographed fun. The details of their brainstorming session are a little hazy, ("It's kind of crazy," Fessler jokes. "He gets all this credit for it, but really I was the one who came up with it.") but somehow they decided on the home run routine that now follows them around State College. From fellow students in the College Avenue bars on a Saturday night to 6-year-olds at charity events, everyone in Happy Valley wants to take a swing with them.
Sure, the touchdown celebrations might spark a few curmudgeonly notes in some administrator's inbox from a Hotmail or AOL email address. But it's hard to be upset with the results. Since upsetting No. 2 Ohio State last October, the Penn State offense hasn't scored fewer than 33 points in a game. The Nittany Lions have topped 40 in six of their past nine outings, including a 52-49 loss to USC in an all-time classic Rose Bowl in January, and launched themselves to center stage in the hunt for a College Football Playoff spot this season. The attitude adjustment that got them there starts with the full-speed, loud, anything-but-shy quarterback who shows up on Saturdays.
"He's kind of the heartbeat of our team," Barkley said. "We really feed off of that as an offense."
McSorley waited until his third touchdown pass -- a 46-yarder right down the middle to Barkley -- of Saturday's win over Pittsburgh to swing for the fences. Before that it was Gesicki fist-pumping and McSorley chest-bumping with head coach James Franklin that punctuated the 14-0 lead the Nittany Lions built in their first big test of 2017.
He and Fessler said they toyed with the idea of coming up with something new to raise the stakes this year, but nothing felt quite right.
"Don't fix what's not broken," McSorley said with his weekday voice trailing away. "It's just having fun."