College football fans were introduced to Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley's knack for making plays during a thrilling and unexpected performance off the bench in the TaxSlayer Bowl two seasons ago. When McSorley was named as the starting quarterback to replace Christian Hackenberg in 2016, anticipation was understandably high.
All McSorley did as a sophomore was exceed even the most ambitious of expectations. He broke Penn State's single-season record for passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offense while leading the Nittany Lions to a magical Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl appearance.
Now, McSorley returns for his junior season with a ton of offensive firepower by his side. The question is: How much better can McSorley be in 2017? In our ongoing series examining the to-do list for the Big Ten's top individual returners, let's take a look at what McSorley should work on this spring to become even more of a threat.
Making fewer mistakes: McSorley was tremendous in so many areas last season, but every quarterback can stand to gain consistency throughout the course of a long season. He threw interceptions in three of Penn State's first four games before the Nittany Lions found their groove. And in the Rose Bowl against USC, McSorley threw three interceptions, including a backbreaking pick that helped lead to the Trojans' game-winning field goal as time expired. According to Pro Football Focus, McSorley actually performed better in the Rose Bowl on plays in which he was under pressure compared to plays in which he faced no pressure. On 12 dropbacks under pressure, McSorley completed 7 of 10 passes for two touchdown passes and no interceptions. On 19 dropbacks with no pressure, he completed 10 of 18 passes (55.6 percent) with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Every game is a learning opportunity, and McSorley will have plenty of experience to draw on as his junior season approaches.
Finding a new No. 1 receiver: Chris Godwin was Penn State's top wide receiver in each of the last two seasons, but he left school a year early to declare for the NFL draft. Last year, Godwin led the team with 59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was particularly amazing in the Rose Bowl, when he caught nine passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns. The good news for McSorley is he has a loaded group ready to step in and fill the void. DaeSean Hamilton could be that big-time threat after two years in which he took a back seat to Godwin. Don't forget that Hamilton caught 82 passes for 899 yards as a freshman in 2014. DeAndre Thompkins (27 catches, 440 yards) and Saeed Blacknall (15 catches, 347 yards) also will have major offensive responsibilities, while Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson have the talent to see an increased role. And that doesn't include tight end Mike Gesicki and tailback Saquon Barkley, who combined to catch 76 passes for 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns.
Increasing completion percentage: McSorley led the Big Ten in passing efficiency and ranked 13th nationally in that category a year ago. At the same time, McSorley's completion percentage (57.9) ranked just 76th in the country among qualified FBS quarterbacks. There's no question McSorley caught fire down the stretch last season, as he completed 68.7 percent of his passes in the last three games. Before those games, however, McSorley had completed 167 of 304 passes (54.9 percent), which is not the type of accuracy rate most would expect from an elite-level quarterback. In games against Minnesota and Ohio State, McSorley failed to complete half his passes. This doesn't take away from the fact McSorley produced an incredible sophomore year. But it shows he has plenty of room to improve in his quest to guide Penn State to back-to-back Big Ten titles.