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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Chasing Reception Distribution, Consistency

by on November 14, 2019 1:41 PM

As Penn State turns the corner in the final four games of the season, the Nittany Lions continue to search for a consistent and viable third option in the receiving game.

That search is still very much ongoing.

“That’s the third one for this group,” Penn State coach James Franklin yelled to his second unit of receivers who had dropped three passes during practice Wednesday.

The Nittany Lions have largely avoided the chronic drop issue that plagued them in 2018, although handful of drops against Minnesota did little to win back momentum or the game during Penn State’s first lost of the season.

“We've got to be more consistent at that last position, there's no doubt about it,” Franklin said earlier in the week. “But that gets spread around. I mean, we've also missed some throws. We threw some balls into the ground. We threw a post to open the game; that we've got to lead the guy so he can run away with a corner on his back hip. That gets spread around. We've got to find ways to get those guys involved a little bit more early in games, as well. I think it's all of it.”

For offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and quarterback Sean Clifford, the issue of the missing third option comes down to a few things, distribution among them.

So far this season the duo of KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth have accounted for 44% of Penn State’s receptions. That’s the highest mark since 2016 when Mike Gesicki and Chris Godwin caught 47% of the team’s catches.

In a sense that is an improvement over Penn State’s unit in 2018 where Hamler and Freiermtuh attributed for 32% of the team’s receptions. The issue in 2019 appears to be less a matter of who to throw it to as it is the drop-off as you go farther down the depth chart.

For example, in 2017, Penn State had four different receiving options that account for 18-19% of the Nittany Lions’ receptions. Mike Gesicki, Saquon Barkley, Juwan Jonhson and DaeSean Hamilton all racked up 53-57 receptions.

A year later Hamler’s 42 receptions were nearly double the next highest receiver. Jahan Dotson has appeared as a viable third option, but his 20 receptions account for just 11% of the team’s total catches.

“But at the end of the day, when the ball comes, you know, you've got to make the plays and we have all of the faith and confidence that we can do it and that they can do it,” Franklin added. “We've just got to bring it out in them more.”

The flip side of this issue is an often unspoken reality that surrounded Penn State’s success in 2016 and 2017: The Nittany Lions made unbelievable catches on a regular basis. As much as Trace McSorley’s legacy is as much a function of his own play, it at least in part is based on a corps of receivers that seemingly made as many spectacular catches as routine ones.

In turn, it may have been inevitable that an offense at least partially predicated on the amazing was bound to come back down to Earth.

Nevertheless, the die may have already been cast for this particular season, but the urgency to make good on receiving talent is an ongoing battle.

“They know it, and it’s addressed in meetings and things like that, and to be honest with you, they’ve been really good at practice,” Franklin said in closing. “And there’s been games they’ve been good. We just have been inconsistent at times.”

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