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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Quest For Wins Coupled With Quest For Leaders

by on March 22, 2019 2:00 PM

There is an argument to be made that Trace McSorley's physical abilities will be the easiest of his attributes for Penn State to replicate moving forward.

Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford both seem capable passers with tools equal to, if not slightly better than, their predecessor's. How they play in the moment is really anyone's guess, but on paper they appear ready for their moment in the spotlight.

The challenge will be something different. What made McSorley so valuable was his ability to access his best play in big moments. And sure, his career is peppered with a few exceptions to this rule, but by in large his legacy was built on those moments. It was his leadership that endeared him to his teammates and his unshakable self-belief that permeated a sideline and gave the Nittany Lions a bedrock to build a season on.

In short, anyone can be a quarterback, fewer people can do it well and lead along the way like he did.

So as Penn State continues through the spring and heads into the summer, one of the biggest questions facing the program won't be related to the depth chart but the leaders found on it.

“Honestly, I had to embrace [being a leader]. It’s my time,” linebacker Cam Brown said earlier this week after practice. “I played last year — me and Garrett Taylor have the most experience on the defense right now. Young guys look up to me, and I feel like I’m in a position where I understand the program and what happens on the field.”

“I feel more athletic than ever. I feel good right now,” Brown added. “When you’re confident on the field and get to play with your speed, and when [strength coach Dwight] Galt gets you right and everything, I feel good.”

But even Brown knows that being a leader and being that leader are two very different things. In reality it's hard to know for sure who will rise to the occasion like McSorley did until those moments arrive. You might have a guess, but you don't really know.

"That's not somebody you go looking for, that's something that comes out in the moment," Brown said. "You don't sit there [during a game], and go 'Ummmmm Ricky [Slade], you're going to be the rah rah guy today'. It's a natural thing, somebody who is confident in the moment, that's when that comes out."

"It could be a handful of guys right now, when the moment comes, we'll see."

The moments will come in bunches this season as Penn State navigates the Big Ten without many of the same proven leadership and talent crutches it had in the past. If Penn State's preseason optimism last year was found in McSorley's return, its hope now is in leadership it assumes it will find along the way. If its success in 2017 and 2018 came from an ensemble cast of stars, its belief in replicating that is grounded in an internal optimism that new faces can develop fast enough to maintain the standard.

It will be a tall order to replicate the past three seasons, both in terms of results and competitiveness. Something made no easier as Brown alluded to national title goals and aspirations.

“We’ve made our mind up,” Brown said. “We’ve let it slip out of our hands the last two years to go to the Playoff by one point and then three points in the second game, the same exact way two years in a row. We can’t let that happen again. We’re not going to let it happen again on this team.”

In a sense, it makes Penn State's entire season the largest moment this team will try to conquer. Old faces will try to prove they were a part of Penn State's recent success and not simply observers of it. New faces will look to prove their stars, and find themselves ready for the moment.

Both knowing that they need a McSorley or two in order to win, but at the same time, that they don't need that McSorley to do it.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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