Three-Way Quarterback Competition To Open Up Post-Hackenberg Era
With Christian Hackenberg off to the NFL, the Nittany Lions will be led by a new starting quarterback for the first time in 38 games. Replacing the record-setting signal caller will no doubt be a difficult task for James Franklin and new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, but with three talented-but-young quarterbacks waiting in the wings, the competition will be tough.
The perceived favorite to land the job heading into the offseason is redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley, who fans should be familiar with following his late-game heroics in the TaxSlayer Bowl, nearly leading the Nittany Lions to a comeback victory after Hackenberg left the game with a sprained joint in his shoulder.
But even outside of his play in the bowl game, McSorley has impressive credentials to take over the starting job. He was one of the winningest quarterbacks in Virginia high school football history, winning three state titles during his four years at Briar Woods. After following James Franklin to Penn State, McSorley won the backup quarterback job as a true freshman, beating out fellow freshman Michael O’Connor who elected to transfer following the season.
Standing only 6-foot and weighing just 196 pounds, McSorley lacks the size that’s generally been required in order to be a successful Division I quarterback. But in today’s college football where uptempo offenses and mobile quarterbacks are thriving, the athletic McSorley fits the mold of the modern college quarterback. Of course questions of durability will come up, and it remains to be seen if his slight frame can with take a season of hits, but size at the quarterback position is becoming less and less of a prerequisite.
Behind McSorley is rising redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens. Like McSorley, Stevens is an athletic quarterback and a real threat to run the ball. Unlike McSorley, Stevens has an impressive 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame that should allow him to take the brunt of hits, and even give out a few of his own too. The key for Stevens will be how far along he is when it comes to the X’s-and-O’s of the offense. While Penn State is tweaking its offensive system following the departure of a pro-style quarterback, McSorley’s extra time with the program can’t be understated.
If there’s a dark horse in the competition, it’s freshman Jake Zembiec. Zembiec too had an outstanding prep career, winning a New York Class AA state title with Aquinas Institute and throwing 37 touchdowns to just seven interceptions during his senior season. A member of the 2016 recruiting class, Zembiec started his career a semester early, enrolling at Penn State to take part in winter workouts and spring practice. It’s a tough adjustment for any true freshman to be ready to take the reigns right away, but being with the program now gives Zembiec a legitimate chance to win the starting spot.
Replacing an experienced starting quarterback is never ideal, especially when it was someone who was as respected as Hackenberg. But with Moorhead now manning the offense and bringing in more of a spread concept, whoever wins the job will have an opportunity to usher in a new era of of Penn State football.