Trace McSorley’s 2016 season was truly one for the record books after throwing for school records of 3,360 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, including five games with more than 300 yards through the air.
Coming in as a first-year starter for the Nittany Lions after the three-year reign of eventual NFL second round draft pick and Happy Valley legend Christian Hackenberg, McSorley managed to jump into a new offense and put up unprecedented numbers for Penn State on its way to an unlikely Big Ten title and Rose Bowl bid.
Penn State’s success hinged on a breakout year for the unlikely hero McSorley after a rocky start that included an interception in the end zone on the final drive in a three-point loss to Pitt and a thrashing at the hands of Michigan.
A significant help in the quarterback’s ability to ease into form as the season went along, the wealth of targets McSorley had at his disposal consistently allowed him to put up huge numbers late in the season that forged a nine-game winning streak.
Each major target with the exception of leading receiver Chris Godwin will return for 2017, as well as a handful of relatively new faces who are primed to breakout.
“Losing Chris is obviously going to hurt. He gave us a ton of production,” McSorley said. “But we still return three or four guys. There’s a lot of leadership in that room and a lot of veterans that really set the tone for how the pass game works and how this team works.”
Young players have stepped up in the past and have had huge years seemingly out of nowhere. Between Godwin’s more than 1,000 yards in his sophomore year to current slot receiver DaeSean Hamilton putting up team-leading numbers on the flank.
Juwan Johnson received all the praise in spring ball after pulling in just two catches in his redshirt freshman season. Redshirt sophomore Irvin Charles also had a memorable 80-yard touchdown grab against Minnesota to kickstart the second half comeback and DeAndre Thompkins has earned playing time in a handful of big games
However, one guy that has shown the potential to put up Godwin’s big game numbers is Saeed Blacknall, a senior flank receiver.
Heading into the Big Ten championship, Blacknall had not caught more than two passes in a single game and tallied 192 yards on the year after missing four games with injury early in the season.
But in Indianapolis, Blacknall managed to have a career day on the biggest stage — six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, which came on back-to-back plays to cut Penn State’s deficit from 21 points to seven.
Following that huge night came a step back. He was suspended for the Rose Bowl after he violated undisclosed team rules.
“You know, you just got to learn from that experience and learn from my mistakes,” Blacknall said. “I’m trying to put that behind us and trying to make new experiences.”
The other main returning starter from the wide receiving corps, senior DaeSean Hamilton, also has the potential to make an impact in his second season with McSorley.
Hamilton’s numbers were down from a team-leading 899 yards in 2014 and second-best 580 yards in 2015 since his move to the slot, but what has made him a valuable member for the team comes from his drive and work ethic.
“You see DaeSean every single day. He’s in there, up early, getting in on jugs, working on footwork and stuff like that,” McSorley said. “Other guys come in, especially the younger guys, and they see him doing that. They realize that’s the standard that is set for that position.”
At the top of the list of McSorley’s targets is senior tight end and future draft pick Mike Gesicki.
After a career year in 2016 with 679 yards receiving, five touchdowns, and several highlight reel catches to make him one of the bigger names in Happy Valley, Gesicki went from one of a few tight ends on the roster with a chance to make an impact to the go-to for McSorley.
He will have his own set of expectations placed on him, but Gesicki also knows what his team’s success last year, as well as his own success, will mean once the season comes around.
“We have team goals and aspirations that we kind of keep to ourselves,” Gesicki said. “To come out last year and have the success we had, it comes with the territory now to have a target on our back.”