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The Catch to Penn State’s Passing Game? ‘Unselfish’ Multiple Deep Threats

by on December 18, 2016 9:30 PM

What’s at the core of Penn State’s receiving corps?

Veteran linebacker Brandon Bell pondered that question for a few seconds the other day.

Bell was the right guy to answer the question.

He’s seen ‘em all on the practice field over the past four years. Hit ’em all crossing over the middle. Hung out with most of them. Even had a WR as a roomie.

Bell easily tackled the question. As contemplative off the field as he is destructive on it, Bell rattled off a 14-sentence reply.

He said how each receiver had his own strengths. How some were fast. Some were funny. “They’re all very different,” Bell said, “that’s for sure.” They meshed well, he said. “They seem to bring out what each other lacks.” They liked each other, he said.

His answer seemingly complete, Bell thought a bit more, as if his response while lengthy had been unsatisfying. Then, his face beamed.

“Selfless,” announced Bell, the team’s No. 2 tackler and co-captain.

“They’re a bunch of selfless guys, that’s for sure,” he continued. “When everybody just wants to win and focuses on that, you get the results that we’ve seen. No one has been crying about who has been getting the ball more. Everybody pretty much just wants to win.”

THE NUMBERS

Though it may not have seemed like it at times, Penn State’s offense – which averaged 36.7 points per game over the course of the season and six TDs per game over the final six games --  played with just one ball in 2016. That made the Nittany Lions’ six-deep rotation at wide receiver ultra-competitive. It’s actually seven if you count tight end Mike Gesicki, who very often flanked wide as the No. 3 receiver.

All seven started at one point or another in 2016. Six led the Nittany Lions in single-game receptions and/or receiving yards. Six had singular catches for 50 yards or more. Five had games of 80 or more receiving yards.

Five of them had 15 or more catches on the season. Their per-catch averages range from 14.2, 14.9 and 15.9 to 17.2 and 23.1 to 35 and 53 yards. (And none of this includes running back Saquon Barkley, who had 23 grabs for three TDs, averaging 15.1 yards per reception – a stunning increase from his 8.1 yards per catch in 2015.)

Penn State just might have had college football’s deepest receiving corps – or, at least, the best at going deep. That’s a certainty.

Quarterback Trace McSorley leads the nation in average yards per completion – 16.1 yards on 206 completions on 358 attempts. According to stats unearthed by Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror, that ranks fourth-best all-time – as in best since the first college football game was played in 1869. McSorley certainly spread the ball out for Penn State in 2016; here’s how:

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Chris Godwin – 50 receptions for 795 yards, 15.9 yards per catch, with 9 TD receptions

Mike Gesicki – 47-668, 14.2 ypc, 4 TDs

DaeSean Hamilton – 34-506, 14.9 ypc, 1 TD

DeAndre Thompkins – 25-431, 17.2 ypc, 1 TD

Saquon Barkley – 23-347, 15.1 ypc, 3 TDs

Saaed Blacknall – 15-347, 23.1 ypc, 3 TDs

Irvin Charles – 2-106, 53 ypc, 1 TD

Juwan Johnson – 2-70, 35 ypc

Head coach James Franklin credits his quarterback for being the triggerman of an offense designed to not allow defenses to have its designs on a singular receiver.

“Trace is doing a really good job of not keying in on one guy and saying, ‘I’m throwing it to this guy,’” Franklin said. “He’s going to go through his progressions. I think it’s also Trace’s confidence that we have so many guys that can make plays.

“It’s also the fact that guys that were young players in the past, in backup roles, that weren’t necessarily ready for prime time -- we’re comfortable now putting those guys in the game, instead of the last couple years where Chris Godwin never came off the field. You remember DaeSean Hamilton played a couple games with one leg, like hobbling around. We weren’t comfortable taking those guys off the field.

“Now we have some young players that have really built everybody’s confidence. They have confidence in themselves, and the players and coaches have confidence in them. It allows us to keep those guys a little bit more fresh.”

RAM TOUGH

McSorley’s distribution and deep balls are not anomalies.

They are part of the form and function, art and science of Joe Moorhead’s unique offense. This is the way that Penn State’s offensive coordinator – who’s been on the job for one year and two days – works. Many hands make light work. In four years as head coach at Fordham, Moorhead’s offense featured both quality and quantity among its receivers, with the distribution looking like this:

2012 – Five receivers with over 40 receptions (41, 44, 45, 48, 72). 2013 – Five receivers with over 40 receptions (41, 66, 85, 89, 93). 2014 – Five receivers with over 20 receptions (23, 43, 62, 68, 89). 2015 – Five receivers with over 30 receptions (31, 32, 34, 36, 37).

In a lot of ways, the timing in 2016 was right for Moorhead and Penn State. Lots of quality receivers, a dual-threat quarterback who showed his chops in high school and as a backup. A head coach ready to made a hard decision and switch gears. And an O-coordinator who knew what to do with all of it: Score Moorpoints.

“I brought Joe in because I thought his system would fit the personnel that we have,” Franklin said. “He's done a really good job of taking advantage of the personnel that we have here. It's been a really nice marriage. It really has.”

Props, too, should go to wide receiver coach Josh Gattis, a key yet relatively under-publicized cog in the Penn State offensive machine. Gattis arrived from Vanderbilt with Franklin in 2014, then nurtured the older Nittany Lion receivers through a stagnant offense and now skillfully subs in six receivers of all ages, sizes, shapes and skill sets.

THE VIEW FROM WITHIN

Other than Gattis, there are two guys who know Penn State’s receivers better than anyone. And that would be starting cornerbacks Grant Haley and John Reid, who have gone against the Nittany Lions receivers day after day – through player-led workouts, spring and summer drills, and when Penn State’s first defense goes against its first offense. Haley’s in his third season, Reid is in his second. Between them, they already have 34 starts at Penn State.

Their view is at ground-level, at real speed. Every day.

“Every one of the receivers is good at a certain thing,” Reid said. “We have a complete receiving corps. We have possession guys, fast guys, blazers. Most guys here are great at the high point of the ball. It seems like our whole receiving corps is pretty tall. Everybody challenges us in his own way. Like DeAndre Thompkins is really, really fast. Chris Godwin has great ball skills. Hammy gets a lot of people at the line.

“We’re guarding a bit of everything in practice. That’s helped us improve tremendously, because a lot of the time we’ll go against receivers who are one-dimensional. But our guys are good at a lot of things. I feel like it’s been a great challenge for us defensively. It’s always competitive in practice.”

True that, says Haley.

“Chris Godwin, DaeSean, Saeed, DeAndre, Irv Charles, Juwan – they all have different sizes, strengths and abilities,” said Haley. “Going against them prepares us for guys who are big, guys who are quick, guys who have speed. It will especially help us against USC. I think our receivers and their receivers are similar. I know Juju (Smith-Schuster of USC) is big on the outside. Going against our guys throughout the year will prepare us for games like that.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football 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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