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Penn State Football: McSorley First Down Connections Hidden Key to Polk’s First Team Slot

by on March 22, 2018 9:30 PM

There's a catch to Brandon Polk and Trace McSorley.

Seventy-seven of them, in fact.

Sixty-six in high school.

And 11 at Penn State.

Over five different football seasons — the last three at Penn State and the 2012 and ’13 seasons at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Va., where the two were teammates.

The chemistry they have developed — and displayed in 2017, if you were paying attention — is important, now more than ever.

Although the Nittany Lions return receivers Juwan Johnson (54 receptions, 701 yards, 1 TD) and DeAndre Thompkins (28, 443, 3 TDs), they lose the potent receiving combo of DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki.

Hamilton manned the slot for Penn State and finished with a school-record 214 receptions, as well as 18 touchdowns. Gesicki, a tight end who often lined up as a fourth wideout, had 129 career receptions, a record for a PSU TE, and 15 touchdowns.

Penn State and its head coach, James Franklin, must replace that production in 2018. And on Monday, Franklin said Polk — a redshirt junior who played 13 games in both 2015 and 2017, and just three in 2016 — may be just the man to do it.

So for now, along with Johnson and Thompkins, Polk is a presumptive starter at wide receiver for Penn State in 2018.

NUMBER 10 AT NUMBER 1

"Brandon Polk is a guy who has played football here, shown some really good flashes over the years and had some health things that he's had to work through and those types of things," said Franklin, "but he's the guy. He's listed right now as a starter.

"There's going to be tremendous competition with him as well. But he's going to be the guy that goes out with the first group in the first practice."

Polk's career numbers at Penn State are not overwhelming. He has 18 catches for 205 yards, with two TDs, to go along with his 18 carries for 159 yards and one score. All of his runs came in 2015, when he was a jet sweep specialist, gaining almost 9 yards per carry.

Polk is not big, at 5-foot-9 and 171 pounds. But he's put on 19 pounds since arriving at Penn State in 2015. And smallish receivers have done well at Penn State historically. In 1982, when Penn State first passed for more yards in a season than it ran, Sugar Bowl star receiver Gregg Garrity was just 5-10 and 170 pounds.

In 2005-008, when Penn State ran its spread HD offense that produced 506 points and a Big Ten title in '08, Deon Butler (5-10, 171 pounds) and Jordan Norwood (5-10, 168) helped fuel a prodigious passing attack (their colleague, Derrick Williams, was 6 foot-tall). Together, Butler and Norwood combined for 337 receptions for over 4,700 yards and 33 TDs, contributing immediately as freshmen.

That's not to say Polk will ever be in their class. But his speed is definitely an asset that can be exploited. Polk runs the 40 in 4.36, which Franklin said will serve him well in Penn State's wide-open offense — a generous parting gift left by Joe Moorhead and now led by offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, who showed the right stuff in guiding Penn State to 35 points, 25 first downs, 6.9 yards per play and 545 yards against a previously-stout Washington defense in the Fiesta Bowl.

"He's the guy that can run," Franklin said on Monday. "He's the guy that's got natural ball skills. He's a little bit undersized obviously, but he's gotten stronger. He's obviously got great chemistry with Trace because him and Trace played together in high school."

HIGH SCHOOL HEROES

About that Briar Woods history:

As starters, McSorley and Polk got their high school team to two Virginia state championship games, winning one. (Overall, McSorley was 3-1 in high school state title games as a starting QB, with a 55-5 record, 9,981 passing yards, 149 TDs rushing and passing, and a state-record 693 career completions.)

McSorley was one year ahead of Polk in high school. As a sophomore, Polk grabbed 30 passes for 426 yards (14.2 average), with 6 TDs. As a junior (in what was McSorley's senior season), Polk had 36 receptions for 549 yards, with five touchdown catches, and 15.8-yard average. Polk could run the ball in high school, too, averaging 9.6 yards on 78 carries, for 797 rushing yards and seven TDs.

Polk's overall numbers catching footballs from McSorley at Briar Woods: 66 for 975 yards and 11 TDs.

At Penn State, Polk has caught passes from three different quarterbacks —  2 for 15 yards from quarterback Tommy Stevens in 2017, and 5 for 56 yards and a TD from Christian Hackenberg in 2015.

Here are the McSorley-to-Polk numbers at Penn State, year-by-year:

2015 — 1 reception for 1 yard, TaxSlayer Bowl.

2016 — 2 receptions for 18 yards; Polk played just three games that year and subsequently redshirted.

2017 — 8 receptions for 115 yards and a TD. But dig deep on the game play-by-play charts, and you'll discover why Franklin is so excited about a healthy Polk teaming up — again — with McSorley:

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Of the eight balls Polk caught from McSorley in 2017, six went for first downs. That's highly efficient, 75% first-down conversion football. And they came on substantial gains as well — of 9, 15, 17, 18, 23 and 23 yards.

One of Polk's two grabs from Stevens also went for a first down (an 11-yarder), so seven of Polk's 10 catches last season went for a first down. That's 70%. Not counting Polk, Penn State had 164 passing first downs on 291 completions — a conversion rate of 56%.

Granted, it's a small sample size — and no jokes about Polk's stature, please — but given their shared history, it's not a coincidence that when Polk and McSorley connected in 2017, it meant something.

Franklin knows that better than anyone. Hence, the coach's proclamation that No. 10, at least to start spring drills and before a fleet of freshman phenoms take hold, is running with Penn State's No. 1 offense.

"He's a guy that we're really excited about, but looking for him to make a move..." Franklin said. "I think Polk has got an unbelievable opportunity."



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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