‘Let’s Be Honest, I Hear It’: Marques Hagans & Penn State Football Wide Receivers Training For Comeback

It’s been more than six months since KeAndre Lambert-Smith was targeted once during the Peach Bowl. It’s been two months since Lambert-Smith, who dropped that target, hit the transfer portal and left for Auburn.

Penn State football’s wide receiver corps is in the midst of an intense recovery period. The unit was by far the Nittany Lions’ worst during the 2023 season and held the team back in some of its most crucial moments. After a year of heavy criticism, Penn State’s coaching staff said the Nittany Lions are playing to prove the doubters of yesteryear wrong.

“The guys are working hard,” wide receivers coach Marques Hagans said ahead of Penn State’s Lift For Life event Thursday. “I think that they are determined and eager to get better. And every day is an opportunity for them to establish their work ethic and the culture within the team.”

Summer camp can make it difficult for programs to judge how players are developing. Players often spend more time in the weight room than catching passes on the field.

Regardless, offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki said he’s seen wide receivers getting ready for the team’s season, which starts on August 31 against West Virginia, whenever possible.

“I will walk by in the office and there’s always going to be a receiver watching film and a receiver catching footballs on the Monarch all the time,” Kotelnicki said. “Talking about wanting to do that, and then actually going and doing it are two separate things completely. And they’re doing it.”

Penn State will likely rely on two particular wide receivers in the 2024 season: Trey Wallace and Julian Fleming. The latter came to Penn State via the transfer portal after spending four years at Ohio State. Wallace has spent his entire collegiate career at Penn State, but his seasons have often been impacted heavily by injuries.

With Fleming, Hagans said the transfer has continued to meld into the Penn State locker room. The Pennsylvania native has bought into the culture and better understands Penn State after spending a full spring with the program.

As for Wallace, Penn State expects him to have a breakout year. Injuries hampered his efforts during the 2023 season and forced him to sit behind Lambert-Smith. However, if Wallace can be consistently healthy in 2024, he could become a huge asset for quarterback Drew Allar.

“I think for Trey, he’s just got to continue to keep working and being consistent,” Hagans said. “He’s working hard. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him, and I think he, like the rest of the guys, should have a good year this year.”

Penn State’s wide receivers have been the team’s most criticized players on the roster throughout the offseason. They’ve been blamed for Allar’s inconsistencies as a quarterback, and some players even felt the need to take to Twitter to defend themselves after their Peach Bowl performance.

However, Hagans and Kotelnicki said those experiences have been what’s bound that group together. The unit is playing with a chip on its shoulder after taking constant criticism for several months.

“Let’s be honest, I hear it, and I think the guys hear it as well. I’m not going to let these guys down,” Hagans said. “I think that we know that we can improve and we can get better. And that’s the motivation for us. Not anything externally, but because our team needs it. And I think these guys have bought in, they’ve worked hard, and they’re going to continue to do so.”

“The rising tide raises all ships. That’s what’s happening in that room,” Kotelnicki said. “There’s a lot of competition and there’s a lot of people who, quite candidly, want to prove a lot of people wrong. And I love that they had that chip on their shoulder. I respect the hell out of it.”

Hagans himself said he’s become a more determined coach. As the room he coaches focuses on overcoming the stereotypes that plague it, Hagans is working to push those players to their limits.

While Wallace and Fleming have become the faces of the group, Hagans and Kotelnicki both said there aren’t any receivers in particular who have stood out from the pack thus far.

While Penn State’s greatest issue last year was that it didn’t have three consistent starting wideouts, the coaches didn’t seem concerned. Rather, they were more interested in letting the group sort itself out through the offseason and even through the duration of Penn State’s 2024 campaign.

“I think everybody’s in the same battle, and the guys that continue to work and continue to emerge will be the guys that play and we’ll count on,” Hagans said. “The guys know they’re in the middle of the summer, they’re getting stronger, they’re getting faster. But every day, they come through drills, they’re competing, every time we get to do football stuff, we’re competing, and that’s an evaluation until the last game. I won’t decide who starts, they will.”

While the past has been a motivating factor for Penn State, Hagans said the group isn’t thinking about what’s happened in previous years. Instead, Hagans and his players are focused on what they can provide in the future.

“I can’t really tell you about the past because we’re not looking back. But I’m excited with these guys,” Hagans said. “The guys that are here, the guys that are in the room, we’re going to coach the hell out of them. I’m going to push them, and we’re going to play really good football this year.”

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About the Author

Joe Lister

Joe is a senior journalism major at Penn State and Onward State's managing editor. He writes about everything Penn State, especially its 10-2 football team. If you want to find him, Joe's usually watching soccer with his shirt off or at the gym with his shirt on. For dumb stuff, follow him on Twitter (iamjoelister). For serious stuff, email him ([email protected]).

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