The time for Penn State’s group of young, gifted freshmen wide receivers to play a bigger role in the offense might be nearing, even if it’s simply out of necessity.
With their season-long starters battling inconsistency and, now, potential health issues, the Nittany Lions are preparing for their key Saturday afternoon clash with No. 18 Iowa with the thought that they might need major contributions from younger receivers, including true freshmen Jahan Dotson, Daniel George and Justin Shorter.
“I told all three of those guys after practice on Sunday that this is going to be a big week for them, especially with losing some guys this week,” head coach James Franklin said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “Those guys need to prepare as if they’re starters this week, then Thursday or Friday, we’ll make those decisions.”
After the Nittany Lions’ 33-28 win Saturday at Indiana, Franklin said his team suffered more bumps and bruises in those 60 minutes of action than they did during any game he could remember as Penn State’s head coach. The receiver position was hit in waves; star freshman K.J. Hamler missed a few plays with an apparent injury, and both junior Juwan Johnson and senior DeAndre Thompkins left the game. Johnson was seen limping heavily as he walked toward the locker room after the game.
Franklin didn’t discuss Thompkins’ status, but he did mention he is “hoping” Johnson, who would be coming off a game in which he caught two passes for a season-high 72 yards, will be ready to go despite the apparent leg injury. Ultimately, though, that’s a decision both the training staff and Johnson himself will have to make together.
“He’s pretty confident that he’s going to be back,” Franklin said. “But, it’s early in the week. So, we’ll see.”
Youth movement: If Johnson and Thompkins aren’t ready to face the Hawkeyes, the Nittany Lions could wind up looking a whole lot younger at receiver.
Dotson and George both played against Indiana; Dotson even made his first career catch. Redshirt freshman Cam Sullivan-Brown emerged against Indiana, making two catches for 33 yards, but fellow freshman Mac Hippenhammer dropped two passes. The only receiving touchdown of the game was scored by tight end Pat Freiermuth, a true freshman.
Franklin said the key to getting on the field for young receivers is how they adjust to the finer points of the position.
“It’s a combination of all those things you’re trying to factor in,” he said. “You’re also looking based on practice and game evaluations. Do they give us the best chance to win? That’s a constant weekly discussion about how we’re going to approach those things.”
Improving at Z: It might be a good time to look at a different group of receivers, anyway.
Thompkins and Brandon Polk, listed as Penn State’s co-starters at the Z receiver position, have combined for just 40 yards per game this season, and both have been prime contributors to the Nittany Lions’ problems when it comes to catching the football.
“I think if you look at some of that, it’s drops,” Franklin said. “But I think if you also look at our offense in the past, in terms of what positions and the guys that are playing each position, who produces the most catches and the most yards in our offense, I think the Z is always a little bit behind those other positions. But yeah, if you look on Saturday, I think at that position we had one dropped explosive play and we had one dropped touchdown. So I think it’s a combination of all those factors.”
On his shoulders: He has looked super-human at times during his Penn State career, but the reality with Trace McSorley is that he’s listed generously at 6-foot, 203 pounds and is taking more hits recently that during any stretch in his career.
Over the last four games, McSorley has averaged 18 carries per game, and even though the results have been strong — he’s averaging 87.8 rushing yards over that span with two touchdowns — Franklin admitted he’s concerned about the punishment being that active in the run game brings piling up.
“My concern right now is Trace is carrying too much of the load on offense,” he said. “That’s something that we need to do a better job of. We need more players having a bigger impact on the game on offense.”
For what it’s worth, Franklin said he hasn’t actually seen any signs that the increased use in the running game has affected McSorley physically, and McSorley himself has said that he isn’t looking for a way out of avoiding those hits, many of which he says come as a result of the defense giving him so much room to run, he has to take it.
“Trace is a guy that’s always part of the solution,” Franklin said. “He’s never about the problems.”