UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It has been a little more than three months since Penn State Football's captivating Big Ten Championship season came to a close in a gripping, record-setting Rose Bowl appearance.
It was that night in Pasadena, California that quarterback Trace McSorley noted all of the emotion, the pain, and the uncomfortable pang of a pit in the stomach, would need to become the catalyst to the motivation for what's next in 2017.
Now in the heat of the grind of spring practice, the Nittany Lions have certainly not forgotten the feeling although set on a different ending in 2017.
"All the hard work that we put in throughout the year going through everything, getting to the Big Ten Championship and the extra weeks in practices and games, we put in a ton of work last offseason to get to the Rose Bowl," McSorley said. "To have it end the way it did, it hurt, but it was one of those things where you end up using it as motivation, knowing the work that we did last year got us to this point and we fell short, so we need to exceed that going into this year," McSorley said.
Headed into winter conditioning, for McSorley, there wasn't much of a shift in format, but rather a noticeable change in where the source of the energy was coming from.
"There's a lot of leadership on guys like Saquon [Barkley], Jason [Cabinda], DaeSean [Hamilton], a lot of older guys and some of the captains and together we've been talking and really trying to make sure we're pushing people," McSorley said. "We know the level and the standard, how we're expected to work and the level of work ethic we need to have at each workout and we just try to push everybody past their limit, especially going into those winter workouts."
For McSorley, rather than the coaching staff driving the intensity and encouragement, it was up to the Nittany Lions to lead by example, bringing teammates to along too when it comes to exceeding expectations.
"There's going to be a point in each workout where each person is going to hit a wall and it's helping your teammates push through that wall, finding that point where they think they don't have more and then realizing they actually do have a lot more left in them," McSorley said.
With winter workouts well complete, it's not even remotely surprising that the drive to compete at a whole new level was a main takeaway headed into spring practice.
Just before kicking off the first day of spring practice, McSorley, Cabinda and Nick Scott were all selected as team captains on March 22. For McSorley, one of the highest honors in sports.
"It's really your teammates who believe that you're the guy they want to look toward when times are tough and times are good," McSorley said. "When you look back at all the captains who have been at Penn State, it's a pretty special group of people who have been a captain here."
Since earning the starting job last training camp, McSorley not only inspired, but brought out the best in those around him on the field, often in an exciting and thrilling fashion, having stepped into a new offensive system under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
Following the 2016 season, McSorley etched his name all over not just the Nittany Lion record books, but Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl record books along the way.
Among 31 school records either matched or broken in 2016, McSorley set 12 of them individually, playing a major role in an additional five all-time team performances.
Averaging 258.1 passing yards per game and a stunning 16.1 yards per completion (which also finished first nationally among FBS programs), McSorley threw for a record-setting 3,614 yards in 2016 with a record 29 passing touchdowns as one of just three Nittany Lion quarterbacks to throw fro more than 3,000 yards in a single season. Helped out by an All-American running back in Barkley, Penn State closed out the year as one of 11 FBS teams with a 3,500-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher.
Headed into year two in the offensive system engineered by Moorhead, along with McSorley, Penn State returns a tremendous amount of its supporting cast from one of the highest scoring offenses in program history.
"We're a lot more confident," McSorley said. "From the quarterback position, just watching our footwork from last spring to this spring, you can tell that we know what's going on and if a quarterback is unsure about what's going on you can kind of see in his feet that he looks uncomfortable."
Outside of quarterbacks though, McSorley noted that the Nittany Lions have gained confidence across the board.
"We've been able take what we installed last spring, grow it in fall camp and throughout the season last year, and now refine it this spring," McSorley said. "I think it's been one of the best things we've been able to do, to understand what we did best last season, what we needed to improve on, how we can continue to get better, the things we're good on and really taking strides to get better."
For McSorley that means perhaps locking in on an emerging receiver to take the place of the clutch consistency of Chris Godwin, while also continuing to see progress from an explosive group of running backs, punctuated by the endless highlight-reel worthy performances from Barkley. Add in returning tight end Mike Gesicki and the options are stacked with experienced potential.
McSorley is also confident in the continued strides of the Nittany Lion offense line, with four of five starters returning and Connor McGovern making progress at filling the vacant center role left behind by Brian Gaia.
"He has done a great job, having experience on the offensive line last year, he knows the plays, he knows how we're getting combos and working toward things and I think he'll get more and more comfortable conducting the offensive line from the center as he gets used to playing the position," McSorley said.
Perhaps the byproduct of a season marked with such striking success though, is the increase in the level of competition, even seven practices in to a 14-practice spring schedule.
"This middle portion is usually where a lot of people lose some energy but we've really kept the energy high and I think a lot of that has been that we have a lot of competition in practice and our guys thrive off of that," McSorley said.
With ongoing battles both on offense and defense each practice, that's exactly the type of atmosphere the Nittany Lions have set out to continue building.
"Offense and defense both are competing all the time we're trying to build one of the most competitive atmospheres in all of college football, just in practice," McSorley said. "So if we can build that and have great competition each day, that will only help us get better. Competition kind of brings out the best in everybody no matter what it is."
Reach Arielle at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent