Another year, another young Penn State wide receiver emerges as one of the best in the Big Ten. In 2014, DaeSean Hamilton was a revelation as a redshirt freshman, catching 82 passes for 899 yards and 2 touchdowns. Last year, Chris Godwin became the third receiver in Penn State’s storied history to post a 1,000-yard season. The Nittany Lions have two studs at receiver, but with the raw talent backing those two up, it’s fair to think that 2016 may be the third year in a row where a Penn State wide out establishes himself among the nation’s elite.
This makes us wonder: who is most likely to emerge as the next breakout star in Penn state’s wide receiver corps this year?
More like GOD-win, amirite? The Middletown, DE sophomore was a beast, catching at least three balls in every game and finishing the year with 69 catches (nice) for 1,101 yards and five scores. It seemed like every time departed quarterback Christian Hackenberg needed a big play in the passing game, he looked in Godwin’s direction. Like, uh, this:
(That guy Godwin’s dragging for about 20 yards? First-round pick Eli Apple.)
As such, Hamilton’s role in the offense was somewhat diminished, but he still chipped in with 45 catches, 580 yards, and 6 touchdowns.
Geno Lewis’ production fell from 55 catches for 751 yards in 2014 to a mere 17 catches for 196 yards last year. Frankly, while he had some really great moments, there were a number of times when he looked lost on the field. Lewis decided to continue his career by transferring to Oklahoma, and we invite you to join the RLR staff in wishing him success in Norman (that is, until the Sooners face Penn State in the College Football Playoff).
Saeed Blacknall emerged as the group’s big play threat, averaging over 31 YPC on his eight receptions last year. We know, small sample size alert, but still!
(A note on terminology: Penn State is expected to run a base offense featuring three WR, one TE, and one RB. The individual WRs are noted by letter: X, Z, and F. The X receiver is the split end, the Z is the flanker, lined up outside the tight end on the other side of the field, and F denotes the slot receiver.)
Godwin returns for his junior year as the leader of what I expect to be the single most talented position group the Nittany Lions field in 2016. His stellar 2015 campaign earned him a spot on the preseason watch list for the 2016 Maxwell (best player in college football) and Biletnikoff (best wide receiver in college football) Awards. He’ll be starting as the X receiver barring something unforeseen.
Joining Godwin on the outside, at the Z receiver position, will be Blacknall. The buzz around the offseason programs and camp is that Blacknall is poised to become the next breakout star in the wide receiving corps. While I expect new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense to rely less on the long ball (no receiver with over 10 catches has averaged over 19 YPC in a Moorhead offense at Fordham), Blacknall’s ability to stretch the field is undeniable, especially if defenses key in on stopping Godwin and all-everything RB Saquon Barkley.
An inexperienced quarterback needs a solid slot receiver to bail him out from time to time, and presumptive starter Trace McSorley will have just that in Hamilton. Hamilton’s an outstanding, precise route-runner, which will be key in Moorhead’s new offense. Moving inside to the F receiver position full-time will allow Hamilton to do what he does best: make big catches in traffic and move the chains.
Credit coach James Franklin for trying to find ways to get DeAndre Thompkins and his elite speed on the field last year by returning punts, but Thompkins struggled, muffing several in key spots. Here’s hoping the redshirt sophomore can put last year behind him and establish himself as a threat in the passing game. Last year, Thompkins caught three balls and carried the rock five times, going for a combined 45 yards with one touchdown on a rushing play.
Speaking of speed, diminutive sophomore Brandon Polk can fly in the open field. Personally, I’m excited to see what Moorhead can do with this potential mismatch nightmare. He and Thompkins should see plenty of snaps as part of four-wide sets. While Polk was primarily used on jet sweeps in 2015 (18 carries, 159 yards, 1 touchdown), he was an occasional contributor in the passing game, catching the ball six times for 57 yards and a touchdown. Look for him to be used all over the field in 2016.
Also look for twin towers Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson to make some plays this year. The redshirt freshmen are both 6-foot-4 and listed at over 220 pounds, giving the Penn State offense a dimension it hasn’t had in recent years. Expect them to push Blacknall for snaps if he struggles early. At the very least, they’ll make really good red zone targets due to their size and athleticism.
Moorhead’s offenses at Fordham were noted for spreading the ball around in the passing game: the last three years have featured seven, seven, and eight Rams catching 10 or more passes. I feel pretty comfortable in saying this is the most talent he’s ever had at his disposal. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports is bullish as well. If Penn State can get even slightly above-average quarterback play, expect big things from this group in 2016.