STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The high school championships kept coming. The college offensive coaches were largely staying away.
Rick McSorley wanted his son, Trace, to understand why.
Rick saw Ryan Burns, who quarterbacked one of Trace's rival high schools in Ashburn, Virginia, become a coveted recruit in the 2013 class, before he signed with Stanford. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Burns "looked like a Redskins quarterback as a high school kid," Rick McSorley said. Similar things were said about another Virginia prep quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a 6-foot-4 flamethrower bound for Penn State whom ESPN rated as the nation's top pocket passer and No. 15 overall recruit in the 2013 class.
Then, there was Trace McSorley, who, at that point, had quarterbacked Briar Woods to three state titles and one perfect season, collected numerous records and honors along the way ... and stood shy of 6 feet. That's why major colleges didn't want him as a quarterback.
"Hey, people get profiled all the time," Rick told Trace. "If you're 6-5 and have long arms and are 300 pounds, you're an offensive tackle. If you can run 4.4 and you're 5-9, 5-10, you're probably a running back."
Rick, a 5-foot-9 former defensive back at the University of Richmond, understood that from a scouting perspective, Trace fit the profile of college safety more than he did college quarterback. He also knew his son.
"If you want to chase this, chase this," Rick told Trace. "It only takes one person to believe in you."
Five years later, Trace McSorley has made believers out of just about everyone. Entering his final season at Penn State, he's guaranteed to be the most statistically significant signal-caller in team history, and perhaps the best. He has 528 completions, 59 touchdown passes and 7,369 yards in two seasons as a starter, leading PSU to consecutive 11-win campaigns and a Big Ten title in 2016. McSorley already owns team records for career touchdown passes, career touchdowns responsible for (77), career total offense (8,268 yards), consecutive games with a touchdown pass (28 and counting), 3,000-yard passing seasons (2) and 300-yard passing performances (10).
Not bad for a guy with standard safety size (6 feet, 198 pounds).
"People out there thought I would have been a better fit as a safety," McSorley said. "Maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn't have, you never know, but I wanted to play quarterback and I was determined to be successful at this level as a quarterback. To see it all come true is something that's really cool and something that I'm proud of, to not fall into the trap of, 'Oh, people are saying this is what I should do. I'll do that.'
"I stuck to my guns."
The undersized, overlooked, prove-you-wrong quarterback isn't new to college football. Anyone who paid the slightest attention to the 2017 season knows Baker Mayfield's story: Texas Tech walk-on to Oklahoma student to Sooners starter to Heisman Trophy winner. Mayfield not only defied the odds but let the world know about it every step of the way.
McSorley is similarly driven but has a more reserved approach. Don't expect any flag-planting or crotch-grabbing with him. McSorley's GIF-friendly touchdown celebration -- a home run swing followed by a how-far-did-it-fly gaze -- is about as racy as he gets. He went to South Florida for spring break, but spent most of it at Bommarito Performance Systems, training with several current teammates and ex-teammates prepping for the NFL combine.
"He's a guy who wants to always prove that he's the best, and he honestly believes that he is, but he does it in a very humble way," PSU offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said. "That's what guys on our team like. He thinks he's the best quarterback in the country, but you never hear him say that."
When not at Penn State's football building, McSorley walks around campus with a baseball cap and ear buds, trying not to draw attention. Penn State coach James Franklin describes McSorley as "Steady Eddie" away from football. "I don't even think he knows how to be cocky," added cornerback Amani Oruwariye.
"I wouldn't say he's got the Baker Mayfield chip," Franklin said. "I don't know Baker very well, but from what I see from a distance and coaches that I know who know him, I don't see that from [McSorley]. But I do think there's always that thing in the back of your mind, when you weren't highly recruited or people said you weren't this or that, we all have a little bit of that inside of us.
"It's not overt with Trace, but that's probably in his gut, motivating and driving him."
McSorley's motivation has morphed from showing he can succeed at this level to removing the qualifiers often placed on his success. In 2016, when he led the FBS in average yards per completion (16.13), some linked his production to 50-50 balls that PSU star Chris Godwin and others snagged more often than not. "He just throws ducks and they make plays," Rick McSorley said of the irritating label.
The new unwelcome narrative, the one that rankles Trace, has more to do with those no longer at PSU: namely star running back Saquon Barkley, a possible top-five pick in next week's NFL draft, and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, now head coach at Mississippi State. Without Barkley and Moorhead, the chorus goes, the Lions can't possibly match their offensive prowess from the past two seasons, when they averaged 39.3 points and scored less than 24 only once. Never mind the fact that McSorley in 2017 put up virtually the same yards and touchdown numbers as in 2016, while improving his completion percentage by nearly nine points.
"They say you were surrounded by Saquon, Mike [Gesicki], DaeSean [Hamilton], stuff like that," McSorley said. "We've still got Juwan [Johnson], DeAndre [Thompkins], Miles [Sanders] coming in. Our offensive line's returning four of five [starters]. So that's where for me, I take it personally myself, and then also it feels like you're taking shots at our team.
"You hear those things and you look back at what we have coming back, I'm going to have that chip on my shoulder to prove that for the entire unit."
Among those McSorley will stand behind is Rahne, Moorhead's replacement at coordinator and one of the first to believe in McSorley as a college quarterback. Five springs ago, Rahne was on Franklin's staff at Vanderbilt, which, like others, had offered McSorley as a safety. But Rahne traveled to Virginia to watch McSorley throw during a chilly 6 a.m. workout.
He saw power and precision with McSorley's throws, spiral after spiral. McSorley attacked different areas of the field and showed no limits with his arm strength. Rahne called Franklin before driving away, telling him that Vanderbilt needed to pursue McSorley as a quarterback.
"The only box he really doesn't check off is height," Rahne said, "and I think that's overrated."
Franklin understood profiling in recruiting. He also knew there were exceptions. As an assistant at Maryland in the early 2000s, he watched Steve Suter, all 5-9 and 194 pounds of him, become an All-American punt returner. Franklin later studied why so many colleges missed on Aaron Donald, the undersized defensive tackle who won the Outland Trophy at Pitt before becoming a first-team All-Pro with the Los Angeles Rams.
He knew he couldn't build a program on recruiting exceptions, but missing out on certain ones, like McSorley, would create regret.
"The thing with Trace that we saw is he just had so many of the intangibles that you can't coach," Franklin said. "You may win a state championship in high school by chance, or have one of those years, but when you go to four state championships and win three of them, there's got to be something there."
McSorley went 55-5 at Briar Woods High, passing for 9,981 yards and amassing 12,053 yards of offense. His success didn't start there. Every youth team McSorley had played on either won a championship or reached the title game. After McSorley won his first football championship in fifth grade, his mother, Andrea, told him to cherish the moment. This doesn't happen every year, she told him.
But for Trace, it did.
His only brushes with mediocrity came in 2014 and 2015, when Penn State posted consecutive 7-6 records. After redshirting in 2014, he made seven appearances in 2015, but didn't attempt more than three passes until the regular-season finale, a 55-16 loss at Michigan State. Opportunity finally arrived in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia, as McSorley relieved an injured Hackenberg and showed some moxie with two touchdown passes and 142 yards. "People got a little taste of Trace," said linebacker Koa Farmer, one of McSorley's closest friends.
"That was really important to give him his confidence back," Rick McSorley said. "You started 60 high school games, 30 you started both ways, you played in four state championships. You get to Penn State and you're an undersized quarterback, playing with Christian, who, if you're designing a quarterback, you design Christian. You don't get to play, but when you do, it's mop-up duty. He didn't play against Ohio State, even when the game was out of hand. That bothered him.
"Playing in the bowl and having success launched him into, 'This is my team. I'm going to take it over and have success.'"
The next summer, Trace beat out Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec for the starting job. After informing McSorley, Franklin challenged him to beat his winning percentage as a high school starter (.917). McSorley's response: Sure, let's do it.
"That's the definition of Trace," Farmer said. "Trace is a winner. He don't lose."
McSorley won't match his prep prowess at PSU, even with a 15-0 season this fall, but he can add more championships to his Lions legacy. It means building upon a 2017 performance that was much more typical for McSorley than the swashbuckling season before.
An accurate quarterback throughout high school, McSorley last fall capitalized on defenses keying on Barkley and sagging off in coverage. Against Northwestern, he connected on 15 consecutive attempts, breaking Kerry Collins' team record. Against Washington in the Fiesta Bowl, McSorley went 12-for-12 on third down with two touchdown strikes. "Distribute the ball, get the ball to the playmakers," Rick McSorley said. "That's how he's always played."
Trace's goal this fall is to blend the tempo and deep-strike ability of 2016 with the efficiency of 2017.
"I'd put him in the top 1 percent of quarterbacks in college football in terms of decision-making," Franklin said. "That's at practice, that's in games, that's all the time, every day."
As Barkley moves on, the quarterback labeled too short to play at a major school is becoming the big man on campus. McSorley is ninth on Bovada's early list of Heisman Trophy contenders, behind five other quarterbacks. But entering a season in which many brand-name programs have uncertainty under center, a proven, productive player like McSorley could rise quickly.
McSorley's fame is starting to grow. Oruwariye remembers when McSorley could roam around town without being recognized. Now they can't go to IHOP without Trace taking pictures and signing autographs.
"I can only see it escalating more," Oruwariye said.
Despite his quiet nature, McSorley cares about how he presents himself publicly. He remembers what Moorhead told him before he left PSU: Take every picture and shake every hand because at some point, they'll stop caring who you are.
McSorley probably won't have that problem around here, but he thinks about the legacy he'll leave as a Penn State quarterback, and how the most important piece could come this season.
"There's a lot of ownership that goes into it, as a senior quarterback, a two-year captain, a three-year starter," he said. "A lot does fall on me, how this season is going to go from a team perspective and from an offensive perspective.
"I cherish the opportunity."