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Penn State Football Wide Receiver Corps Struggling To Find On-Field Leaders

Penn State football doesn’t just have a quarterback battle.

As James Franklin continues to hold off on naming a starting quarterback ahead of the Nittany Lions’ season opener against West Virginia, wide receivers coach Marques Hagans is also holding off on naming the group’s top wide receivers.

Since the departure of top pass catcher Parker Washington to the Jacksonville Jaguars by way of the 2023 NFL Draft, Penn State has had to nearly rework the entirety of its wide receiver depth chart.

The addition of newcomers hasn’t made the decision easier, either. Transfers Dante Cephas from Kent State and Florida State’s Malik McClain by way of Florida State have also been fighting for reps at the position.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the position, Penn State does have a few presumed starters entering the season. If anyone will get top reps at wideout, KeAndre Lambert-Smith is that person.

Lambert-Smith was Penn State’s No. 2 receiver behind Washington last season, hauling in 24 catches for 389 yards and four touchdowns. Lambert-Smith’s been the expected heir apparent to become Drew Allar’s top target ever since.

But, taking first-team reps at practice hasn’t helped to dispel that notion. While Allar has yet to be named the starting quarterback, Penn State’s presumed top gunslinger has been throwing to the team’s apparent top ball catcher in Lambert-Smith. Signs point toward Penn State feeling comfortable with at least one player.

Still, Hagans has been unrelenting in refusing to announce any true starters. With just eight days until Penn State opens its season, he said that he’d only be ready to name his top players until 7:30 p.m. on September 2: the official kickoff time for the Nittany Lions’ opening matchup against West Virginia.

Plenty of names have been tossed around camp. Omari Evans emerged as a potential starter after the 2023 Blue-White Game, though he was expected to fall below Cephas on the depth chart. While Cephas himself fell in the depth chart, Evans joined him and hasn’t seemed to make a name for himself in fall camp.

Liam Clifford has also emerged as a potential starter to the surprise of many, but he and redshirt freshman Kaden Saunders just seem to be part of the general competition, according to Hagans.

“They’ve been doing well. They’ve been showing up to practice early,” Hagans said. “I think they have good competition between them. They work well together. And they set great examples in our room. So, it’s been fun to watch those two guys.”

Hagans, entering his first season with Penn State, said that he didn’t enter the job with expectations about any of the players. Months later, he still hasn’t managed to separate the players — not because of a lack of talent, but largely due to proximity in skill level.

“I just took everybody as is. I just let everybody show me who they were and their work ethic,” Hagans said. “I think guys just presented themselves and over the test of time. [They’ve] just proven whether they can be trusted and be consistent. I wouldn’t say anybody in particular [has surprised me].”

If Hagans can take away one positive to take away from the drawn-out battle, it’s that the competition seems to have made the corps better, he said.

Franklin added that each player feels that they have a chance to earn top minutes, from Lambert-Smith to Malick Meiga, who was recently named a team captain but is expected to play most of his reps on special teams. The job is wide open to whoever steps up in the coming weeks.

“I think one of the best things that you can have in sports is competition,” Hagans said. “And that shouldn’t be like that should continue throughout the season. “No one should ever feel comfortable. So, I think competition is a great thing and I think it’s one of the great things that will always be a part of our room now and moving forward.”

Penn State’s starters likely aren’t set now, and it’s possible that they won’t be for kickoff against West Virginia. As Hagans put it, “You never know what you have until you take the training wheels off.”

Hagans is fine with sorting out his problem throughout the season. He wants competition at the position throughout the season, and he’s ready to use it to his advantage. Should depth charts, and even starting rotation, change over the course of the year, so be it.

“It’s a long season and right now we’re just focused on West Virginia,” Hagans said. “And so whatever that rotation requires to help us win, that’s what we’ll focus on.”

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About the Author

Joe Lister

Joe is a junior journalism major at Penn State and an associate editor at Onward State. He covers Penn State football, and enjoys yelling on Twitter about Philadelphia/Penn State sports. If you want to find him, Joe's usually watching soccer with his shirt off or at the gym with his shirt on. Please send all positive affirmations and/or hate mail toward him on Twitter (iamjoelister) or via email ([email protected]).

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