A year ago, Justin Shorter set the launch point of his young Penn State career.
Though an injury limited him to four games in 2018, Shorter thrived during pre-bowl practices, prompting former quarterback Trace McSorley to call him one of the team’s most improved players.
“Justin Shorter had, in my mind, the best month I’ve seen out of any of those kids,” McSorley said in January after the Citrus Bowl. “I mean, he grew by leaps and bounds.”
A year later, the redshirt freshman receiver, a former five-star prospect, is looking for a fresh start via the NCAA transfer portal. Shorter, a 6-foot-4 burst of potential, no longer is with the team.
Coach James Franklin confirmed after practice Wednesday that Shorter entered the transfer portal prior to the team’s regular-season finale against Rutgers. His name was removed from Penn State’s roster Wednesday.
A more common story: Stories like Shorter’s are growing more common in college football: that of the highly ranked recruit who fights expectations, doesn’t reach them as quickly as planned and decides to change scenery. And it gave Franklin another reason to challenge the way players use the NCAA’s year-old transfer portal.
“I do believe strongly that college athletics, I felt like, really taught adversity and battling through things," Franklin said. “And this has really changed that dynamic.”
Shorter is the first Penn State player this season to enter the NCAA transfer portal. As a result, he was subject to the rules Franklin drafted earlier this year.
With a dozen players transferring after 2018, Franklin set the following parameters: Players who enter the transfer portal can’t be on the team and will lose their scholarships at semester’s end.
Players are eligible to return (as safety Lamont Wade and receiver Cam Sullivan-Brown did), but Penn State will make the final decision. Last summer, Franklin summarized his policy as, “If you’re looking, we’re looking.” He reiterated that this week.
“After that first wave, we got together with the [players’] Leadership Council and the coaches and really had a discussion about what we think is fair for the players and what we think is fair for the program,” Franklin told reporters Wednesday in State College. “We’re clear on the front end. Then everybody can determine how they want to work within that system, so everybody understands it.”
Multiple factors on story: So what happened with Shorter? How did the nation’s top-ranked 2018 receiver recruit, according to the 247Sports recruiting site, find himself in this position? As always, multiple factors apply.
Shorter’s freshman-year development was slowed by an injury that limited him to four games and caused him to miss six during the middle of the season. But, as McSorley said, a sharp December, followed by a productive offseason, positioned Shorter for a breakthrough 2019.
Penn State worked with Shorter during the offseason to keep his weight down. The receiver was listed at 235 pounds, but last spring Franklin said Shorter was “a cheeseburger away from 250."
Still, Shorter could run, though Franklin wanted the receiver to play “as big and strong as he is.” And position coach Gerad Parker sought to get Shorter past the weight of those recruiting expectations.
“Instead of worrying about all this outside stuff that can really affect a guy who was as heavily recruited as he was … we just removed his thoughts of what was supposed to be,” Parker said earlier this season. “This is who you are, let’s make sure what you become invested in is these things that will help you, as opposed to all this other stuff that is really just talk.”
Quiet role: Shorter started the first two games, was injured against Maryland and missed the game against Purdue. That set him back, as did a quiet role in the offense.
Shorter caught two passes in the five games before Penn State’s visit to Ohio State. He was targeted 21 times in 11 games.
At Minnesota, the coaching staff tried to involve Shorter early, but he dropped two passes (one in the end zone) and was unable to prevent an interception. Former walk-on Dan Chisena replaced Shorter as the starter the following week against Indiana.
Shorter caught three passes last week at Ohio State but apparently had made up his mind. Frankin said Shorter informed him of his decision when they met Tuesday.
Comparing him to Gesicki: Franklin said he understands, but he prefers stories like that of former Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, who overcame difficulties of his own.
Gesicki caught just 13 passes during his sophomore season in 2015 when he struggled with drops. Over the next two years, Gesicki caught 14 touchdown passes, turning himself into a second-round draft pick.
“They’re the best stories to me — the guys who have battled through it,” Franklin said. “If we had the transfer portal when Mike Gesicki was here, would it have played out the way it did?”
Franklin wished Shorter the best, wherever that comes. A New Jersey native, Shorter had no shortage of high-profile offers, including from Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia Tech. He’ll be in demand again.
“I want nothing but success for him and his family. I want that for all of our guys,” Franklin said. “But I also know the journey is different for all of them. And I think sometimes, guys come in and they expect the journey to play out a certain way, and when it doesn’t, that’s hard. That’s life. That’s how life goes.”