It was an unexpected turn of events during Penn State’s 2020 season that the Nittany Lions’ unproven wide receiver room turned out to be one of the team’s strengths despite once being among the team’s biggest question marks.
But then again, nobody saw Saquon Barkley coming.
Jahan Dotson though? It wasn’t a total shock the group’s most experienced player was able to lead to the way for an otherwise unproven unit.
“We’re in a better situation than we were this time last year at wideout,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Wednesday. “But we’re still going to need a couple guys to step up for us. It’s been good this spring, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
That better situation includes a few more answers than questions this time around. Led by Dotson and freshman/sophomore Parker Washington [36 catches, 489 yards and six touchdowns] that duo could very well turn out to be one of the better tandems in the Big Ten if not the nation.
You could squeeze KeAndre Lambert-Smith into the group as well, Washington’s freshman counterpart managed 15 catches and 138 yards, and at 6-foot-1, Lambert-Smith is one of the bigger targets for quarterback Sean Clifford to keep an eye on. Both surprised fans and onlookers landing far higher up the depth chart heading into the 2020 season than most expected.
“[They] ended up playing a lot of football for us last year, and based on targets, they both had a pretty decent amount of success, based on targets and opportunities that they had,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be interesting for them — can they take that next step in their careers kind of understanding what it takes?”
Beyond the trio of rising and established stars Penn State will likely look for Cam Sullivan-Brown to take the next step as well. While Sullivan-Brown’s career 13 catches and 119 yards may not jump off the page, all 13 catches showcased an ability to be reliable down the field.
“He was on track to have a great season, and then some injuries kind of bit him a little bit,” wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield said.
The good news now is what is already apparent to even the average onlooker, in 2020 the Nittany Lions faced all kinds of uncertainty at receiver. Now in 2021, there are established answers, hopeful prospects and incoming freshmen that ought to give Penn State plenty of options to work with on offense.
And while lots of options doesn’t guarantee lots of consistency, it’s a far better starting point heading into the summer.
“It’s a little bit different than what happened last year when everybody was unknown,” Stubblefield added. “Right now we have a couple known guys and now we’re trying to make sure that we get Malick Meiga, Jaden Dotten, Cam Sullivan-Brown. We do want to have some more depth.”
Penn State will also welcome Lonnie White Jr, Harrison Wallace and Clifford’s brother Liam to the fold this summer, giving the Nittany Lions three more targets over six feet. And according to Stubblefield, at least one more option with impressive hops.
“I don’t know if you guys have seen his basketball highlight that man, that Joker jumping out the gym,” Stubblefield said of Wallace with a laugh.
“I would not want to defend him on the basketball court.”
And hopeful for Penn State, teams won’t want to defend him, or his teammates, on the field this season either.