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Penn State Football: Finding Deep Threat A Complex Obstacle

by on October 05, 2019 9:00 PM

"I can improve," Sean Clifford said bluntly. He isn't disappointed, it's just that he knows what he has to work on.

Deep passes down the field.

For Penn State the issue down the field has been a complicated one. It's not as though the Nittany Lions haven't had explosive passing plays, Penn State averages 9.8 yards an attempt, a figure bettered by only eight teams across the nation.

But the Nittany Lions have gained a lot of those yards after the fact. KJ Hamler's long touchdown reception against Maryland was largely work after the catch. Jahan Dotson's 72-yard touchdown was a sprint from start to finish. For all of the offense, Sean Clifford and his stable of options are still working on finding a rhythm that spreads out defenses rather than outruns them.

And some of that is on Clifford, the sophomore hasn't been afraid to take his shots but they've been long and short, on the mark and far from it. A pass to Hamler on Saturday was woefully under-thrown and intercepted by Purdue, and while in the long run the play didn't matter it was emblematic of Penn State's issues down the throw: the thought is there, but the execution has lacked.

"Obviously that one interception can’t happen," Clifford added. "I just need to go back and watch this tape, I think our guys have made some big time plays. I’ve been a little off when it gets to 35-40+ and that’s just focusing in. But I’ll get better, I know that I will."

The other side of the coin is Penn State's receiving corps, a talented group, but one that doesn't have an obvious deep threat option. It stands to reason that Justin Shorter's size and frame would make him the best choice, but injuries have plagued his first year and a half at Penn State. 

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There is also Jahan Dotson or the obvious abilities of Hamler, but while both have proven to be reliable, neither has developed a consistent catching ability similar to the likes of Chris Godwin, Mike Gesicki or DaeSean Hamilton.

So what changes? Ultimately it's not a question of reinventing themselves, instead it's a question of development and chemistry.

"It’s repetition," Hamler said on Saturday. "That’s all I really can say, it’s repping it in practice. Me and Cliff we’re going to get together, and talk it out, passes we could have completed, or what we we’re looking at on this play or did I cut my route too short? It’s more so just learning from each other so we don’t mess up the next time."

"It’s more that I just need to know when I need to be patient or when I need to put my foot on the gas and just go. So certain areas of the field I do that and it helps and we rep that in different situations in practice or if I should put my foot on the gas right here or if I should tempo it and then explode out of my breaks. It’s all about where we are on the field and how he sees it."

According to Dotson, a somewhat obvious observation remains: The defense can limit the number of deep shots available down the field. As Purdue demonstrated during the second half, the best way to avoid big plays is the keep everything in front of the defense and allow the shorter throws.

And changing that defensive approach is multifaceted. Some of it is how you run your routes, and some of it is everyone else chipping, requiring the defense to respect the pass and the run.

"Deep routes, you have to push and make it seem like you’re always running a vertical," Dotson said. "So if I have a post or something I have to make it seem like I have a vertical. On a short route I can take my time a little bit more, since I have a little bit more time on the outside while KJ is on the inside. The deep routes I kind of have to get on my high horse. A lot of corners this year have been skating from us, that’s a kind of technique when they just open up and run with us, so we’ve noticed that a lot this year."

"We have to be able to run the ball and be physical up front and it’s eventually that’s going to bring the defense up."

In the long term Penn State faces an issue of self-discovery as players develop. In the short term, it's the hot word James Franklin and his staff have been harping on all season long.

Consistency.

"You have certain players or you have certain programs that are able to do it from time to time but great programs and great players are able to do it consistently," Franklin said on Saturday.

"All of those guys in the locker room have a lot of talent and they can show you one out of ten times or two out of ten times that the best programs and the best players are able to do it at a high level. That’s why our message is consistent. That’s why our approach is consistent. So that we have the best opportunity, I think, to be able to play at a high level as consistently as possible."



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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