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Penn State Football Still Seeking Emergence Of Starters From Wide Receiver Corps

Leading up to the 2023 season, Penn State football struggled to find a group of wide receivers standing out from the pack.

Even with little time left before the Nittany Lions took the field against West Virginia to open the season, wide receivers coach Marques Hagans offered little insight into who would start in the September matchup.

At the time, that was a similar narrative to the quarterback battle unfolding in the same building, where James Franklin had yet to announce a starting quarterback but eventually landed on Drew Allar. The wide receivers never found their answer.

Players shuffled in and out of the starting rotation. Dante Cephas, Liam Clifford, and others all got starting reps while the development of top option KeAndre Lambert-Smith slowed down through the year.

Several months later, Franklin repeated the same line at Tuesday’s spring practice that Penn State fans had heard the previous season.

“I still would like to see a group of guys really separate themselves from the pack,” Franklin said. “I think the whole group has improved, but I’d like to see a couple of guys separate themselves and make it clearly obvious to everybody.”

Penn State’s wide receivers have been a topic of discussion throughout spring practice, and last week, offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki argued that Penn State’s wide receivers were going to surprise their critics.

Kotelnicki said the wide receivers wore a chip on their shoulder, which wasn’t surprising. Several members of the group took to Twitter after an unsuccessful Peach Bowl to voice their thoughts on Penn State fans and their own performances.

Despite a lack of standout players, there are a few bright spots for the wide receiver corps.

Trey Wallace earned good reviews from Franklin on Tuesday. If he can stay healthy through practice and the season, the “super athletic” wideout should serve as a strong third option Allar didn’t have a year ago.

Additionally, Lambert-Smith likely won’t be forced into being Allar’s top target, a job that just seemed too big for him by the end of the season. Instead, new arrival Julian Fleming, who came to Happy Valley by way of Ohio State, seems primed to take that position.

One of the better pass-catching recruits Penn State has landed, Fleming wasn’t a star at Ohio State, but he has the opportunity to be Penn State’s best option. On top of that, Franklin said he’s been a strong addition to the locker room. Despite Fleming picking the Buckeyes over Franklin and the Nittany Lions some time ago, Franklin said that’s all in the past.

“He’s been really coachable. I think he has been able to move on, we’ve moved on, or it’s been no talk about the past,” Franklin said. “I think for both parties, I don’t want to speak for Julian, but it seems like it’s been really good in terms of just energy, morale, expectations.

“It’s been a really good addition. I know that he’s earned the coaches’ and the players’ trust and respect pretty quickly,” Franklin continued.

With an offense trying to reinvent itself under Kotelnicki, the 2024 season will be pivotal for the wide receivers. The group likely won’t have two tight ends to carry some of the pass-catching burden — just Tyler Warren with Theo Johnson heading to the NFL. And as Kotelnicki seems ready to use more two-quarterback options and focus on his running backs more with run-pass-option schemes, the wideouts will have to compete for attention.

Still, Penn State’s offense is utilizing the receivers in new ways. Safety Jaylen Reed said the new schemes have challenged the defense in practice, and the wide receivers are stealing the show.

“I feel like we had a lot of explosive receivers in the past. I feel like we haven’t used them in the most creative way,” Reed said. “And I feel like now we are using them and it’s obvious it’s way more creative.”

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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. He also listens to Mac Miller more than you. 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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