Penn State's wild card: Who emerges at receiver?
There’s no question the Penn State offense was faced with numerous challenges heading into the season. Among them was installing a different scheme, via Zoom, with new OC Kirk Ciarrocca.
With a 2nd-year starting quarterback, arguably the best running back in the Big Ten running behind the most experienced offensive line in James Franklin’s tenure and one of the most talented tight ends in the country, the only real question the Nittany Lions are pressed with is who will step up in the receiving corps.
Although just a single question, it’s a colossal one that has seemed to plague the program the last few years even while producing standouts such as KJ Hamler and Chris Godwin. Taylor Stubblefield joins Franklin’s staff as the fourth receivers coach in as many seasons following the departure of Gerad Parker this offseason to take the OC job at West Virginia.
While Stubblefield may lack many experienced options, he has a bevy of underclassmen to choose from to battle it out behind Jahan Dotson for the No. 2 and No. 3 receiver positions.
Penn State brings 9 scholarship receivers into the season following the transfer of 5-star recruit Justin Shorter and the recent withdrawal of former 4-star prospect John Dunmore from the university for personal reasons. Among the 9 players, 4 are returning for at least their second season in Dotson (Jr.), Daniel George (RS-So.), Cam Sullivan-Brown (RS-Jr.) and TJ Jones (RS-Fr.). The 5 newcomers are KeAndre Lambert-Smith, Parker Washington, Jaden Dottin, Malick Meiga and juco transfer Norval Black.
Gone are Hamler’s 56 catches for 904 yards and 8 touchdowns. Dotson is the most accomplished of the receivers, coming off 27 catches for 488 yards and 5 scores in 2019. After that the floor significantly drops out.
Sullivan-Brown brings the most career catches (12) to the group behind Dotson, but only played in 3 games last season after a lower-limb injury sidelined him following a career-high 5 receptions against Maryland.
George only has 11 receptions through his first couple of seasons, but who can forget his 95-yard touchdown reception, the Penn State record for longest play from scrimmage, in 2018 thrown by then backup QB Sean Clifford.
Sean Clifford ➡️ Daniel George
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 15, 2018
In Week 1 against Indiana, those 3 will likely be the top guys as Ciarrocca and Stubblefield lean on what little experience Penn State does have, but don’t expect that to hold true as the season unfolds.
Lambert-Smith and Washington have been the talk of camp on the offensive side of the ball, including positive comments from George and Sullivan-Brown, the very guys trying to hold off the freshmen. Lambert-Smith, a 6-1, 185-pound, 4-star recruit out of Virginia, has the size and decent speed to push for one of the starting jobs at the X or Z.
At 5-10, 205, Washington has more of the speed and shiftiness that Hamler did and will compete for a starting job at the slot if Dotson eventually moves to X or Z. Washington may also replace Hamler as the Nittany Lions’ kick returner.
Regardless of how and when the great wide receiver experiment of 2020 sorts itself out for Penn State, Clifford will always have his security blanket in tight end Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth caught nearly twice as many passes of 10 or more yards last season than any other returning Nittany Lion, per CFB Stats, and at 6-5, was Clifford’s go-to target in the red zone.
The battle behind Freiermuth for Penn State’s No. 2 tight end may actually play out to be the Nittany Lions’ third-leading receiver depending how things shake out with the wideouts. Redshirt sophomore Zack Kuntz has the lead for the second tight end spot, but it would be no surprise if Brenton Strange or highly-touted recruit Theo Johnson seized the spot from Kuntz.
Last season tight end Nick Bowers was the fourth-leading receiver on Penn State, so by no means would it be shocking for one of the guys behind Freiermuth to be more than just the guy behind Freiermuth.
No one is expecting a Rashod Bateman to emerge from this offense, but Ciarrocca did develop the 2 highest producing receivers in the country last season at Minnesota. Whether Penn State gets anything close to that in Dotson and someone else will go a long way in determining just how high the ceiling is for the Nittany Lions in 2020.