ASHBURN, Va. — Game tape is about to start — Trace McSorley's first high school football game, starting quarterback as a skinny freshman. Except over there on the wall of this biology classroom at Briar Woods High, right in the second row of a team photo, there's No. 7 … with a bleached mohawk?
Playoff ritual, his old coach explained.
How did McSorley get from there (whatever the haircut) to serious Heisman Trophy candidate at Penn State? Charlie Pierce, McSorley's high school coach, offered clues one recent morning, starting with how he had followed McSorley's progress through junior high in this exploding D.C. suburb where the Washington Redskins train a few miles east. How did a freshman get to start at QB in the 2010 season opener? The coach chose a word that McSorley's coaches have used ever since.
"The moxie, that was always there,'' Pierce said. "The heart, always. It was just about getting stronger, faster, better command."
The future, Pierce couldn't guess. McSorley surpassed all wildest dreams. How many high school players get 60 straight starts at QB — the maximum possible in the state of Virginia if you start from the beginning and advance to the state finals every season — and win three state titles?
It's all worth looking back as McSorley goes into his senior Penn State season with such high expectations. His bio includes a bunch of sentences that start with "The only quarterback in Penn State history with …"
Because McSorley was handed the huddle immediately in high school, his experience level is without peer in the current college game. Go through the bios of current Power 5 conference quarterbacks. Nobody has as many as the combined 87 high school and college starts that McSorley has.
Looking back, McSorley figured he was as ready as a ninth grader could be to play his first high school varsity football game, since he could tell a Cover 2 defense from a Cover 3, that kind of thing.
"Whatever I was able to gain from, you know, Madden,'' McSorley said of the video game.
Physically? Approaching 6 feet, he probably was not there yet back then.
"My freshman year, I was probably about 130 [pounds], 140 soaking wet," McSorley said. "I was a little kid."
However many hours you need to achieve mastery of a task, the game is about muscle memory, about not just seeing situations on video, but also knowing exactly what window will open for how long and what kind of pass will get through that window. With McSorley, Penn State starts this season ahead, simple as that.
Charlie Pierce hit a few buttons on his computer and the 2010 Briar Woods season opener appeared on the whiteboard in the front of his science classroom. Biology classes didn't start for another week, so Pierce had time to talk about one of his favorite subjects.
"This is after we're 4-6 [the previous season], still trying to figure things out,'' Pierce said, mentioning that another school in Loudoun County had opened and that school hired a coach who had won a state title. "Some thought the pastures were greener. We lost about six or seven underclassmen to the high school just opening. And these were good players."
First play, there was skinny No. 7 in the shotgun. Let the record show that on the first play of McSorley's high school career, he completed a pass to his tight end on the left sideline.
That year, Pierce had choices at QB but decided to go with the youngster. The other guy, a sophomore, was not really a thrower, more of a runner. And the offense would be built around the tailback, a senior who had run for 1,000 yards the year before.
"His first run, right here — he breaks his leg,'' Pierce said of the running star. "He gets rolled up on and breaks his leg, just like that."
The backup tailback didn't make it to halftime before hurting his arch. That's getting ahead, though. On the screen, the freshman QB found a little room for himself and stepped up to open some space.
"He overthrew that,'' Pierce said of the next play. "His first pick."
So let the record also show that the first series of McSorley's high school career ended with an interception. Pierce said he didn't remember that until he pulled out this tape all these years later.
On the film, you look at the skinny QB's form and nothing really jumps out at you. Nothing wrong, just nothing special, except the more passes you see, you notice the other end of them. Passes keep ending up where only one person has a shot at them: a receiver for Briar Woods High School.
Skip ahead to the fourth quarter. The team, which had a bigger playoff pedigree, had scored to take an 8-7 lead, with only a couple of minutes left. Briar Woods began inside its own 10-yard line. Third and short, McSorley juked a couple of linemen and got a first down. Then he got sacked.
Fourth and long, McSorley stepped up in the pocket to find room and hit a wide receiver over the middle. Third and 10, McSorley dropped two steps and hit his tight end. About 30 seconds left, still not in field-goal range, fourth and 10 — "this is it,'' Pierce said eight years later, "do or die."
A wheel pattern down the left sideline, into triple coverage. The frustration of the defenders jumps off the screen. On second down, McSorley avoided a sack, got to the sideline inside the 10, and got out of bounds, six seconds to go.
Pierce noted how McSorley had spiked it on one play, and gotten out of bounds on the next. He held for the field goal, which went through.
"He had those intangibles at a very young age,'' Pierce said.
Eventually, the coach would get word back from the huddle about things McSorley would say: "Are you going to do your job? Because I'm going to do mine.'' Taking charge like that wasn't immediate. A high school freshman doesn't say that to seniors. Pierce, however, remembers the time in McSorley's sophomore year when Briar Woods played the just-opened school, where a bunch of players had transferred to. Pierce was getting ready to talk in the locker room pre-game when McSorley piped up, and simply said, "I love you guys — I'm glad all you guys want to be here.''
Nothing more needed to be said, Pierce said. He bagged his own little speech. They were on their way to another state title, the second of three straight. If they held a lead in McSorley's senior year, it would have been four straight.
On the field, Pierce saw McSorley make reads the coach had never seen a high school quarterback make. Zone reads, reads out of gap schemes. The coach remembers one play in which McSorley had stuck the ball in the belly of his back, but a defensive lineman had blown the play, taken the running back down.
"I'm staring at the zone blocks, ready to chew their butts out,'' Pierce said of his linemen. "Next thing I know, I see the officials with their arms up. He had pulled the ball out. I was fooled."
Penn State wide receiver Brandon Polk got to Briar Woods as a sophomore. He was a year behind McSorley. Polk ended up winning state sprint championships. Did he know if got a step on a defensive back, the ball was coming?
"Oh yeah, I know Trace,'' Polk said. "He's always going to throw the deep ball and be accurate with it.
"On time, create big plays."
Did Polk see the confidence right away?
"He feels like he can go out there and do anything," Polk said. "Whether it's create big plays, throw the ball anywhere. He thinks he can do my position sometimes."
Pierce remembers the whole recruiting process, how McSorley, an accomplished defensive back never afraid of contact, turned down an offer to play that position at Stanford, among other schools. Eventually, a QB coach from Vanderbilt, showing up at the early-morning spring workout sessions Pierce had set up for college coaches, decided that this kid was a QB, not a DB, and changed the offer that school had originally made. Then James Franklin switched from Vanderbilt to Penn State. McSorley received a text: "Hang in there. Hang in there."
From the start, the skinny kid knew how to hang in, work the clock. Back in the beginning, McSorley said, it was just about loving football and going out there and having fun. Maybe it was just luck that there wasn't an incumbent QB a couple of years ahead. But winning that state title McSorley's freshman year (and sophomore and junior years) tells you that it was the school that got lucky. Lucky for Penn State, too, since there was so much tape to evaluate, to see that this kid was no one-game wonder.
"When I found out he was coming to Briar Woods, he was much smaller,'' Pierce said. "Size didn't matter. He played with reckless abandon. You could tell he had something for this game. You saw it as an eighth grader."