Even with all of its returning talent, Penn State has one big question to answer

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Name the guy that fits this description.

This Penn State skill player that had more yards, touchdowns and touches from scrimmage than any B1G player at his position group the last two years. He also couldn’t be stopped against USC in the Rose Bowl. People were buzzing about him at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, too.

Saquon Barkley? Nope. Kudos if you guessed Chris Godwin.

Godwin is the Lions’ only starting skill player from 2016 that won’t be back in 2017. The fact that Penn State returns  nearly its entire offense from one of college football’s top units is why the Lions are likely looking at a preseason top-10 spot. Having a couple of preseason Heisman Trophy candidates doesn’t hurt, either.

But when Godwin announced his decision to leave school early, it was a major loss for the Lions. In Penn State’s jump ball-heavy offense, nobody in the B1G did that better than Godwin.

Just in case you forgot:

So now Penn State is facing a major question amid major expectations.

Who is going to do that?

To be clear, Penn State isn’t in desperate need of someone that can catch passes. We already outlined why Mike Gesicki could be an All-American in 2017, and DaeSean Hamilton actually leads all B1G returners in receiving yards.

Penn State needs a dude that can spread the field like Godwin did. They need a physical deep threat that can win 50-50 battles.

Fortunately, there are several candidates that could become what Penn State needs.

SAEED BLACKNALL

Career stats — 33 catches, 690 yards, 5 TDs

Could he be the guy? — Consistency has been Blacknall’s biggest hurdle at Penn State. The last two games of Penn State’s 2016 season were fitting for Blacknall. He went off and had a career-high 155 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the B1G Championship, only to get suspended for the Rose Bowl for a violation of team rules.

The question is if Blacknall, now a senior, can put it all together. It’s worth noting that his monster B1G Championship came when Godwin was virtually shut down. At the same time, Blacknall’s two touchdowns were both the result of Wisconsin’s defensive backs over-running the play.

If you go back and look at Blacknall’s touchdowns, a lot of them came because he made a late adjustment on the ball and the defensive back didn’t.

Blacknall might not attack jump balls like Godwin, at 6-3, 212 pounds, but he’s still a guy with a big frame that can take advantage of a mismatch downfield. If he can stay on the field and out of the doghouse, he might be the guy with the best chance to replace Godwin’s role.

DEANDRE THOMPKINS

Career stats — 30 catches, 470 yards, 1 TD

Could he be the guy? — Blacknall and Thompkins are certainly the two most experienced options to fill Godwin’s void, though it remains to be seen if they’re the most talented options. Thompkins, if you’ll recall, actually led the B1G with five catches of 20-plus yards at the midway point of the 2016 season. In fact, ESPN gave him the midseason title of “B1G’s best deep threat.”

But Thompkins faded down the stretch. He also struggled with drops as a sophomore, which isn’t a deal-breaker, but he still might not have McSorley’s trust like other Penn State receivers. Thompkins’ size (5-11, 190 pounds) doesn’t suggest he can consistently win 50-50 battles, either.

Having said that, Thompkins is still coming into his own as a wideout, and he has the speed to get behind a secondary. Perhaps it all clicks in his fourth season.

JUWAN JOHNSON

Career stats — 2 catches, 70 yards

Could he be the guy? — You get the feeling that Johnson is the guy many expect to become the second coming of Godwin. After all, he’s a former U.S. Army All-American with a 6-4, 220-pound frame and massive hands. That helped earn him the nickname “Megatron Jr.” after future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson, who worked with Godwin ahead of the combine. On top of that, Johnson ran the 100-meter dash in sub-11 seconds in high school. Put it all together and Johnson should be able to get behind secondaries and make highlight-reel plays.

So can we fire up the Johnson hype train yet? Let’s pump the breaks on that for now.

Johnson still has to prove that he can get separation from B1G defensive backs. His only “Godwin-like” catch to date came against Michigan State in the regular-season finale. It was a glimpse of what the Lions hope Johnson can become. He fits the mold of the guy who can thrive with McSorley throwing him the ball.

The upside is certainly there. Many expect him to shine just like Godwin did. If Johnson has a big offseason and becomes a complete wideout (Godwin’s blocking was underrated), then we can all board the hype train.

IRVIN CHARLES

Career stats — 2 catches, 106 yards, 1 TD

Could he be the guy? — See “Juwan Johnson.” The two sophomores-to-be have had similar paths as former four-star New Jersey recruits. Both Charles and Johnson had two total catches in 2016 that likely made Penn State fans giddy about the future. Put them on the same highlight clip and it’s not hard to see the similarities.

Charles has the size and the physicality that Penn State needs in a deep threat. James Franklin went so far as to say that Charles has more talent than any receiver he’s ever coached. Whether or not he can maximize that talent is another question.

Like Johnson, it’s a matter of becoming more polished as a route-runner and earning snaps. Doing the little things like blocking and getting open on a broken play could give him that opportunity as a sophomore. There’s no question that the breakout potential is there.

So who will be McSorley’s new BFF?

We obviously can’t answer that question with certainty in March. He certainly has four capable candidates, though all of them have significant strides to make to become the All-B1G receiver Godwin was the last two years. If we’re making educated guesses, mine would be that no one truly matches Godwin’s production individually.

Leading the B1G in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns over a two-year stretch is no small feat. It could easily be a mixed bag of all four of those guys flashing deep-threat ability throughout the season.

RELATED: Why Trace McSorley should’ve received Heisman Trophy consideration

Johnson still might be the best bet to begin to fill Godwin’s void. If he establishes trust with McSorley, expect to hear that Megatron Jr. nickname a lot more.

Penn State’s offense needs to have a deep threat to replicate last year’s success. Without one, Barkley will face eight guys in the box (he still might), Hamilton can’t be as effective in the slot and Gesicki will have to deal with an over-the-top safety. Above all else, McSorley can’t be the player he is unless he can take shots downfield. Nobody in college football did that better than McSorley in 2016.

As long as he finds another deep threat, the same should be true in 2017.

REFERENCES

Photo Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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