The nature of the collegiate game is such: A player has four years to make an impact at a University before their time at said school comes to an end. And like all good things, those four years generally travel at warped speed until one day you wake up and you’re set to walk across the stage at graduation. All head football coaches at the college level know that yearly turnover is something that have to deal with. Rebuild is not a word that is thrown around so freely like it is at the professional level because every year is a rebuild year in college. It’s just what’s expected. Players graduate. They leave for the NFL. They transfer. It happens.
But sometimes there are players that are far more difficult to replace than others. Sometimes, you get lucky and have a backup or freshman waiting in the wings to take over immediately. Stanford had Kevin Hogan, and didn’t lose to much offensively when Andrew Luck went to the NFL. Sometimes, though, you have to scrap for talent to replace your departed stars. For every Kevin Hogan there are dozens of Vernon Adams. Remember him? JuCo transfer to Oregon that took over for Marcus Mariota? That didn’t work quite as well.
So where will Penn State fall this season on that spectrum in replacing the first true wide receiver threat the program has had since Allen Robinson left for the NFL after the 2013 season?
Chris Godwin hauled in 59 Trace McSorley passes last season for nearly 1000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. That means that Godwin caught almost 38 percent of McSorley’s touchdown passes last season. That will be difficult to replace, especially for a football team that has aspirations of another Big Ten title and beyond.
But just how, and with whom, do you replace Chris Godwin with? That’s an answer that is difficult to fathom because there are two schools of thought here. The first, being a numbers game. Simply find a way to replicate those 59 catches and 11 touchdowns by any means necessary. If that means one player steps up and does it all, fine. If it means that five players each catch an additional 12 passes and two touchdowns, also okay. Then you have the second thought process, which is more X’s and O’s, depth chart stuff. Some fans will want to see one, solidified receiver on the outside every game in 2017. They’ll want that one receiver to prove that they are the next in line and can produce at a high level. This second idea has some merit, as having a legitimate number one receiver forces defenses to scheme around him. When you already are faced with a challenge of gameplanning for Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, another threat causes more headaches. It all comes down to perspective and if you believe that a team needs faces or if you think that win and loses are all that matter.
So let’s take a look at who could become the biggest receiving threat for the Nittany Lions this year.
Tight End Mike Gesicki
I’d be remiss if the preseason First Team All-American wasn’t the first one on this list. While he’s not a wide receiver and won’t line up off the line much, if at all this season, Gesicki provides Trace McSorley a threat in all levels of the field. He’s a security blanket in short yardage situations and can stretch the field more effectively than most wide receivers. At 6’6″ and 257 pounds, Gesicki has the perfect build to be a dual threat tight end. Think of him as a collegiate Antonio Gates. Gates has had the uncanny ability to stretch the field and find the soft spot in coverage for some time now with the Chargers. But when he gets into the redzone, he’s the lethal. He’s impossible to pop at the line because of his size and he doesn’t drop passes. That’s what Gesicki could be this year. Last year, Gesicki was the team’s second leading receiver in receptions with 48, yards with 679 and touchdowns with five. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that he could catch an additional 11 passes this year and fill up Godwin’s number as one player. The yards may not be as high, but 59 catches and 11 touchdowns is certainly doable.
Red Shirt Junior Wide Receiver DeAndre Thompkins
James Franklin is still waiting on Thompkins to become the receiver the team dreamed he’d be when he was recruited to Penn State in 2014. His downfield ability gave fans hope that he’d be able to be the homerun threat for the Penn State offense. So far, that hasn’t come to fruition, but 2017 could be the year that Thompkins breaks out of his shell. While not the crispest route runner, Thompkins does possess blazing speed and athleticism that sets him apart. He ranked fourth in the Big Ten last year in yards per reception at over 16 yards a catch. He is somewhat of a one trick pony, however, and will have to open up his route tree and add to his repertoire in order to succeed this season. Last year, he caught 27 balls for 440 yards and a single touchdown. This year, Franklin could call on him to run opposite of DaeSean Hamilton on the outside. Thompkins will be the biggest boom or bust candidate on this year’s roster. He could go for 50, 1000 and 10, but he could just as easily go for 20,300 and 1. It’s the unforutnate nature of a true fly pattern receiver.
Graduate Senior Wide Receiver DaeSean Hamilton
Speaking of Hamilton, he could very well be the guy that James Franklin just elevates to the next level in 2017. Hamilton, unlike Thompkins, is a fantastic route runner who finds soft spots in zones extremely well. Last year, he was the number three receiver in terms of receptions behind Godwin and Gesicki as he hauled in 34 passes for over 500 yards. The concern on Hamilton is that he only found the endzone one time last season. Now that’s not too much of a deterrent if you go back and watch the tape on Hamilton, who lost a ton of reception opportunities to Gesicki and Godwin when the team got close to the endzone. The touchdowns will come for Hamilton this season with Godwin out of the fold. I’d be shocked if he didn’t secure at least five touchdowns this season. He’s caught a pass in 38 of the 40 career games he’s played in, so McSorley won’t have a difficult time finding Hamilton at least a few times a game. If he can bring in five passes a game, that’s 60 catches right there in the regular season. What gives Hamilton an advantage most games is his size. At 6’1″ 206 pounds, Hamilton is able to body up smaller cornerbacks well and position himself to make the grab. If it is to be Hamilton and Thompkins on the outside at times, the pair could play off each other well. Thompkins will be the downfield threat that will down defenders off the intermediate routes run by Hamilton and vice versa.
Redshirt Sophomore Wide Receiver Juwan Johnson
The next two players on this list would need to make a major jump from 2016 to 2917 in order to help replace Chris Godwin. The first is Juwan Johnson, who caught just two passes last season for 70 yards. But despite playing in limited action last year and being relegated mostly to special team, this could be the year that we see the emergence of Juwan Johnson in the Penn State passing attack. He is the most physical imposing receiver of the lot, standing 6’4″ and weighing 226 pounds. He won’t be asked to stretch the field all that often, but he is the perfect receiver to step into the slot this season and find a dramatic increase in success. James Franklin is very high on Johnson, which is why he could shoot up the depth chart this season and get early snaps to prove his worth. Johnson, to me, appears to be the guy most likely to break out in a big way this year. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on Johnson catching more than 30 passes this season, which doesn’t sound like a ton, but the uptick would be a 1500 percent increase in receptions from a year ago. I think Franklin and the Nittany Lion community would certainly be happy with that.
Redshirt Junior Wide Receiver Brandon Polk
Despite also only having two receptions in 2016, Brandon Polk gets on this list because of sheer bulk of touches he may see in 2017. Polk can be deadly in so many ways, as he can burn you over the top on a deep fly, use his shiftiness to catch passes at or behind the line of scrimmage and make people miss or come around on a jet sweep and run the football. While it’s not entirely conventional, it will work if used in moderation and correctly. James Franklin and Joe Moorhead seem to know when and where to call those certain plays to utilize their potential. Polk will succeed if he’s given the opportunity to efficiently run these plays. He won’t have the total amount of catches that Godwin had last seaosn, but he may be in line for more total touches. If Polk could provide 800 total yards of offense this season, between through the air and on the ground, the Nittany Lion will have yet another weapon at their disposal that teams will be forced to scheme around. While an injury plagued him most of last season, Polk appears to be healthy and ready to go to start this year. Coach Moorhead gave high praise to the work that Polk was putting in with Josh Gattis this offseason to get ready. He said he isn’t sure exactly how Polk will be utilized, but, “He certainly has the ability to help us score points.”
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