Freshmen Wideouts Signal Bright Future for Penn State
Heading into the season, one of the biggest concerns facing the Nittany Lions was the loss of Allen Robinson, man of 97 catches, 1,432 yards, six touchdowns, and the now-famous leaping catch against Michigan in last year’s four-overtime thriller.
After a terrific junior year saw Penn State’s best receiver leave for the NFL, where Robinson was drafted in the second round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, there was a gaping hole the size of Beaver Stadium’s new scoreboards left at the wide receiver position.
How would sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the passing attack be able to function without his favorite target? In 2013, 42 percent of Hackenberg’s completions went to Robinson, including 48 percent of his 2,955 yards passing and 30 percent of his 20 touchdown passes.
Combing through the roster before the first game against Central Florida in Dublin, there was a startling lack of both production and experience at the wide receiver position. Geno Lewis, a junior, was the team’s most accomplished wideout with 18 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns in 2013.
Behind Lewis on the depth chart sat three unproven freshmen in DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, and Saeed Blacknall. Hamilton, a redshirt freshman, missed the 2013 season with a wrist injury, but had the benefit of sitting in on team meetings and observing the offense from the sideline. Godwin and Blacknall both came to Happy Valley this season as talented four-star recruits, choosing Penn State over other premier schools like Alabama, Florida State, and Maryland, but would need time to learn the offense and develop a rapport with Hackenberg.
The general feeling surrounding the program was that, at best, the freshmen would be able to contribute a few key plays on offense per game while they developed their raw talent into more refined skills. Maybe they would make the jump, but nothing close to filling the big shoes left behind by Robinson.
After seven games, the freshmen wideouts have shattered those expectations.
Through seven games in 2013, Robinson caught 55 passes for 878 yards and six touchdowns, quickly becoming part of the discussion as the nation’s best receiver. Through seven games this season, Hamilton, Godwin, and Blacknall have combined for 77 catches, 858 yards, and two touchdowns, nearly identical production despite the low touchdown total.
Now, to be fair, 57 of those receptions, 686 yards, and one touchdown belong to Hamilton alone, who’s having a record-setting year by Penn State freshmen standards. But the true freshman pair of Godwin and Blacknall have shown flashes of brilliance, particularly in last weekend’s game against Ohio State.
Godwin has at least one reception in every game this season, with a personal-best three catches for 22 yards against Rutgers and another three catches for 16 yards against the Buckeyes. Although Godwin’s statistics aren’t as gaudy as Hamilton’s, the Middletown, Delaware native has averaged over 10 yards per catch this season.
Blacknall, tabbed as the No. 4 prospect in New Jersey by Rivals.com and one of the nation’s best wide receivers coming out of high school, had been relatively quiet before the Ohio State game. After not seeing any playing time during the first three games, the Manalapan, New Jersey native had only three catches for 26 yards entering Saturday night’s highly-anticipated contest. The young wideout was a relatively unknown commodity, but that would all change on one play.
Early in the fourth quarter with Penn State trailing 17-7, Mike Hull made a leaping interception in the middle of the field and returned the ball to the Ohio State 45-yard line, giving the Nittany Lions their best starting field position of the night. After a penalty for roughing the passer, a pair of Akeel Lynch runs, and two short passes to Blacknall and Godwin, Penn State faced a critical 3rd-and-six from the Ohio State 24-yard line.
Dropping back to pass and seeing nobody open, Hackenberg lofted what appeared to be an ill-advised pass to Blacknall, who was blanketed in double coverage near the corner of the south end zone. With only a few yards to work with, Blacknall leaped, secured the ball with one hand while the other was pinned against his defender, and landed inbounds to give Penn State an improbable touchdown, pulling within three points of the lead.
— Onward State (@OnwardState) October 27, 2014
Prior to Saturday’s game, Franklin praised the young wideouts for their effort so far this season, but wanted to see more game-breaking plays from the rising duo.
“One of the things they’re doing a nice job of is mentally, doing what they need to consistently do with very few mental mistakes,” Franklin said. “They’re making the plays that they’re supposed to make, catching the ball. The next step is to get them to play with more confidence and play faster so they can break some tackles, make some people miss, and create some big plays.”
Before Blacknall’s big catch, his previous long reception was 12 yards. After a four-catch, 34-yard effort against the 13th-ranked Buckeyes, Blacknall has a spectacular 24-yard touchdown reception — the first of his college career — on his résumé. For coach Franklin, Hackenberg, and Penn State fans, hopefully Saturday night’s catch was the first of many big plays from the young receiver.
“I’m really proud of the other young receivers, like Saeed, being able to have a big game and get a touchdown for us, as well,” Franklin said after Saturday’s emotional loss to Ohio State. “We’re that close, we really are. I truly believe with a little bit of patience, a great attitude, and tremendous work ethic, we’ll get where we want to go.”
Along with Hackenberg and Hamilton, the emergence of the two young receivers is a promising sign for a program the appears to be on the precipice of returning to its former status as a national contender.