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A Penn State Quarterback in Canada, Eh? It’s Nothing New (They Want McSorley, Too)

by on June 21, 2018 8:40 PM

The Canadian Football League wanted Trace McSorley before Christian Hackenberg.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL put McSorley on their negotiation list in February 2018. Details here.

(Obviously, nothing came of it. But can you imagine what Trace would do with all that extra space — fields that are 12 yards wider and 10 yards deeper, with 20-yard end zones?)

And, if by chance, Hackenberg, who has reportedly drawn interest from the Edmonton Eskimos, ends up playing north of the border, he wouldn’t be the first PSU QB in the CFL.

Or the second.

Or, likely, not even the best.

Former Nittany Lion quarterbacks John Hufnagel and Pete Liske — a combined 42-8 as Penn State starters — have a firm grip on the top of that list.

Hufnagel was 26-3 as a starting quarterback for Penn State (1970-72) before playing three seasons with Denver in the NFL. He then spent a dozen years in the CFL, with Calgary, Saskatchewan and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In his final season as a player, Hufnagel also helped coach Saskatchewan. From 1990-96, he was the offensive coordinator and coached quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia to All-CFL honors for the Stampeders.

From there, Hufnagel bounced around in the NFL, coaching quarterbacks and serving as an O-coordinator with stops in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, New England (the QB coach, tutoring Tom Brady as the Pats won the Super Bowl) and the New York Giants. Hufnagel returned to Calgary in 2008, and was head coach there until 2015. In all, Hufnagel was CFL Coach of the Year two times and has won four Grey Cup championships.

Hufnagel, who was 102-41-1 as a CFL head coach, is currently Calgary’s president and general manager.

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Liske led Penn State in passing in 1962-63 — the Lions were 16-5, and Liske’s QB coach was Joe Paterno — then played in the AFL for the Jets in 1964 (Joe Namath arrived in 1965). Liske then headed to the CFL to play for seven seasons, sandwiched around five years in the AFL and NFL, including two with the Eagles.

It took Flutie’s arrival — and Huffy’s coaching — decades later to break many of Liske’s CFL passing records. In 1967, Liske threw for 4,479 yards and 40 touchdowns for the Calgary Stampeders, and was named the league’s most outstanding player. (The next year Liske threw for over 4,300 yards and 31 TDs.)

Liske went on to serve as an NFL referee and then a college athletic director at Idaho and Toledo. In the early 2000s, Liske was an athletics fundraiser for Penn State, with an emphasis on facilities, including Lubrano Park.


Other Penn Staters have made their mark in the CFL.

They include D-linemen Bruce Clark, who was the national Lombardi Award-winner but headed north to play in Toronto after Green Bay picked him No. 4 overall in the 1980 NFL Draft, and Cameron Wake, who was a two-time CFL Defensive Player of the Year after recording 39 sacks for the BC Lions in 2007-08.

Clark and Wake both returned stateside to play in the NFL, and Wake — known as Derek when he played at Penn State — is now an All-Pro defensive end for the Miami Dolphins.

Another former Penn State All-American D-lineman, Steve Smear, played in the CFL. He helped Montreal win the 1970 Grey Cup. Smear played six years in the CFL, with stints at Toronto and Saskatchewan, playing linebacker and defensive end. (Kinda ironic that half of Penn State’s most iconic defensive tackle pairings — Smear and Mike Reid, plus Clark and Salt and Pepper running mate Matt Millen — ended up in the CFL.)

Two Penn Staters returned to their native Canada for their pro careers.

Former Nittany Lion linebacker Pete Giftopoulus played several seasons in the CFL with his hometown Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Gifto is best known for his game-saving interception of Miami’s Vinnie Testaverde that sealed Penn State’s 1987 Orange Bowl win and a second national championship.

Canadian native son Alex Mateas was a first-round draft pick of his hometown Ottawa Redblacks in 2015. A 6-foot-4, 309-pound offensive lineman, Mateas began his career at Penn State in 2010, then transferred to UConn, where he started 29 games in three seasons, including every contest in 2013-14.


Among Nittany Lions of more recent vintage, 2017 Penn State special teams ace Josh McPhearson played in the 2018 CFL exhibition season for Saskatchewan — watch a clip here — but did not make the regular-season roster.

Former Penn Stater Geno Lewis, who transferred to Oklahoma, now plays for the Montreal Alouettes. He caught seven passes for 120 yards in the CFL in 2017, and early into the 2018 season he has a pair of receptions for 23 yards including a touchdown. Click here to watch Lewis make a leaping one-hand grab in a CFL uniform.

On the current Penn State coaching staff, new wide receivers coach David Corley played two seasons in the CFL. A four-year starter at quarterback for William & Mary, Corley was a backup QB for Hamilton in 2003, completing 19 of 32 passes for 212 yards, with one TD and one pick. In 2006, Corley suited up for all 18 games with Calgary, but did not play.

Speaking of coaches, former Nittany Lion offensive lineman Ron Heller spent the 2009 season as the O-line coach of the Toronto Argonauts. He also coached in NFL Europe, United Football League and the NFL after 12 seasons playing in the NFL with Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Miami.

Former All-American linebacker Ed O’Neil, a first-round NFL draft pick who played seven years in the NFL, coached a pair of seasons in the CFL. In 2007, O’Neil was the defensive coordinator for Hamilton and in 2009 he coached the linebackers for Toronto.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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