Catching On: Penn State Receivers Judged by Fit in New System
Let’s start with Allen Robinson, because Penn State has mostly hyped up the sophomore to lead a green batch of receivers this year since Justin Brown jumped to Oklahoma.
Robinson is shifty, lanky and tall. He’s taken a couple intermediate routes and picked up significant chunks of yards after the catch throughout training camp. But speed can merely be the precursor for such.
Few have been in Robinson’s face like Stephon Morris, the senior cornerback with the most experience of Penn State’s secondary. He said it was “kind of easy checking him” last spring. Now five days from the season opener against Ohio at Beaver Stadium, Morris noticed a new trait in Robinson’s route-running, one that separates good receivers from the average.
“He’s definitely a cat to look out for,” Morris said. “He just does so many things. He makes all his routes look the same.”
This is not the Penn State offense of run the dive and hit the out, laced with slow-developing screen plays. First-year coach Bill O’Brien’s scheme is complex, built on spacing and exploiting matchups to put his best players in that space. He knows what he had in New England, and without Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, you’re likely looking at a bad spin-off of the Patriots offense. A well-publicized team meeting early in spring eviscerated hope of watching a well-oiled machine this year.
“I looked back at the team and I saw a lot of white eyes, because they were watching that film as fans,” O’Brien said at the start of training camp earlier this month.
“So I shut the clicker off … and I said, 'Look guys, we're looking at the schemes here. Don't worry that that's Tom Brady and don't worry that that's Wes Welker and Gronkowski and the other guys.' ”
O’Brien’s system demands the player understand his role. At receiver, the coach said, it entails getting open and catching the ball. This does not seem difficult, does not eliminate someone from playing time because downfield blocking is suspect. But it does demand smart, instinctive route-running and sure hands. Take Trevor Williams, a true freshman who had zero billing at the start of training camp and is now one of the first names off the tongue of quarterback Matt McGloin and tight end Kyle Carter when disclosing who can contribute in the passing game.
“He stepped up whenever he got his chance,” Carter said. “I’ve seen him catch the ball consistently, run real good routes. He’s just learning and learning and that’s the best thing. He’s like a sponge out here. And every time he gets a deep ball, he always comes down with it.
“From what I seen in team drills, he’s always open. So, he’s doing something right.”
“Shawney Kersey, Alex Kenney, Trevor Williams,” McGloin said, “we have four or five tight ends who are going to play for us this year. We have a lot of weapons in our receiving corps. It's dangerous when I get comfortable with the wideouts and tight ends. I know what they're thinking every day."
Arbitrary stats from Brown, Devon Smith, Derek Moye, who all are no longer with the team, is not a correct measure of value for what Penn State is replacing in its receiving corps. Instead look for separation at the line of scrimmage, footwork — O’Brien and receivers coach Stan Hixon routinely review a route or cut with a player after a rep to reinforce the motion.
"We feel good about the wide receivers,” O’Brien said. “It goes back to — with all due respect to everybody in here, and I do have a ton of respect for you guys — but nobody's in that building. Nobody sees what we see.”