Taking Stock: Receivers
Blue White Illustrated continues its multi-part series examining the Nittany Lion roster as it proceeds through winter workouts and eventually into spring practices. Today, we'll continue with a look at Penn State's receivers room following the transfers of Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk, plus the graduation of DeAndre Thompkins:
KEY LOSSES Juwan Johnson, Brandon Polk, DeAndre Thompkins
OUTLOOK Meeting with the media for the first time since his January hiring, new Penn State wideouts coach Gerad Parker was asked to supply some of the initial impressions of the group he’s been charged with leading next season.
Fresh off a whirlwind of recruiting to help the Nittany Lion coaching staff round out its Class of 2019, however, Parker acknowledged that evaluation process for the wideouts is still in its initial stages.
And, more important, he’s keeping an open mind about it.
“I'm kind of wanting to learn them as men before I learn them as players. I think if you develop a bias the other way, sometimes in my past and what I've done, it doesn't go as well,” said Parker. “So I want to challenge them to keep an open heart to me and learn how we're going to do things. And I want to do the same to them.”
Certainly, though, Parker is aware of the challenges the position group faced in the past 12 months following the departure of assistant Josh Gattis, the hiring and subsequent firing of David Corley, and the reason he is now on Penn State’s staff.
The reason being, of course, that the 2018 season was an unmitigated disaster for the Nittany Lion receivers.
After posting seasons averaging 260.7 yards per game in 2016 and an even more robust 290.2 yards per game in 2017, the Nittany Lion passing game nosedived last season to 218.08 yards per outing. The number was even worse against Big Ten competition as the Nittany Lions produced just 203.9 ypg through the air in those nine outings.
Surely, the unspecified injuries to quarterback Trace McSorley played a role in the dropoff.
Less accurate than his two prior campaigns, the veteran quarterback completed just 53.19 percent of his passes (192 of 361) for 2,530 yards and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions, a departure from his 224 of 387 (58 percent) for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns with eight interceptions and 284 of 427 (67 percent) for 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Penn State’s struggles at receiver were a critical reason why.
Though official statistics aren’t kept for drops, the advanced metrics at Pro Football Focus charged Penn State’s receivers with 38 drops for the season, up significantly from 24 in 2016 and 26 in 2017.
Making matters worse, the biggest struggles were coming from the most veteran and relied upon receivers on Penn State’s roster. Making 25 receptions on 49 targets, DeAndre Thompkins led the team with nine drops while Brandon Polk and Juwan Johnson were charged with six drops each. For Polk, the receiving rate was a team-worst 34.6 percent in making only nine catches on 26 targets, while Johnson was targeted 43 times but made just 25 receptions. The pair also battled injuries, Johnson appearing in 10 games (limited in two of those) while Polk played in 11.
Asked to discuss the coaching staff change this offseason, Franklin described the situation as such: “We didn't make the plays that we'd been making. And we dropped too many balls,” Franklin said Wednesday. “And there's a lot of factors that go into that. There's not one responsibility or answer for that; there's a number of them.”
Granted a virtual clean slate with the graduation of Thompkins plus the offseason transfers of Polk and Johnson, Parker will lead a group that has last year’s leading receiver returning in rising redshirt sophomore K.J. Hamler, who finished with 42 catches for 754 yards and five touchdowns. Also returning are rising true freshman Jahan Dotson (13 receptions for 203 yards in eight appearances), true freshman Daniel George (two catches for 112 yards and a touchdown in three games), redshirt freshman Mac Hippenhammer (six receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown), redshirt freshman Cam Sullivan-Brown (four receptions for 49 yards), and true freshman Justin Shorter (three receptions for 20 yards in four games).
The word “freshman” attached to the eligibility of each returning receiver from the 2018 season, Parker admitted that the circumstances create both challenges as well as substantial opportunities.
“I’ve never been around a room that young would be my first answer. Secondly, it is exciting and challenging,” he said. “Of course, would you rather walk into a senior-ridden room and a proven room and all those things? Yeah. Anybody who says that would be lying.”
Still, Parker continued, he’s up for the challenge.
“You like the youth that this room has that has also bonded with talent. It's a youthful room, which is always tricky to find leadership in a youthful room, but also it's very gifted,” said Parker. “If we can find structure it to find leadership within it and make it what it needs to be from a talent, fundamental issue and go, I think it allows us to kind of be able to preach the sky's the limit.”
At the very least, the Nittany Lion receivers can look up and see ample room for progress and development given the troubles of the 2018 season.
Also highlighting two walk-ons Wednesday, veterans Isaac Lutz and Dan Chisena, Franklin ran through all of the talent that already exists in the room in Hamler, Dotson, Sullivan-Brown, Shorter, Hippenhammer and George, plus the true freshmen in Dunmore and Jones.
Optimistic about the possibilities that exist for the group, Franklin pointed to skill development and confidence as the areas most in need of improvement. And that process, he said, is already very much in progress as the Nittany Lions work through winter conditioning and soon begin spring practices.
“A bunch of those young guys will have a tremendous opportunity to step up and make some significant moves,” said Franklin. “So there are some talented guys there that we're excited about and obviously we feel really good about the tight end position and offensive line and quarterbacks and defensively. But we're going to be young, but we're going to be talented and it's going to be exciting and it's going to be really competitive.”