When the NFL Draft is held later this month in Philadelphia, receiver Chris Godwin may well be the only Penn State product selected. And that might lead you to believe that the Nittany Lions’ leading pass-catcher from the past two seasons will be the most difficult man to replace as PSU heads into the 2017 campaign.
But that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, Godwin will be missed after making an early exit to the NFL. However, Lion head coach James Franklin and position coach Josh Gattis still have a loaded group of receivers this spring.
We’re breaking them down into three categories:
• DaeSean Hamilton returns for his 17th season of eligibility. OK, we’re kidding. Hamilton is actually a fifth-year senior who only SEEMS like he has been around forever. Versatile enough to play all of the receiver positions, among the strongest wideouts in the program and an established leader at the position, Hamilton spent the offseason working to improve his so-so speed.
Beyond showing he can be more of a deep threat, Hamilton really has nothing to prove this spring. Consider that he ALREADY ranks ninth in PSU history in receiving yards (1,985) and is tied for fourth in receptions (161). The career record for catches is 179 (by Deon Butler), so Hamilton is pretty much assured of blowing that away.
We don’t see Hamilton emerging as a No. 1 option, as he was during his redshirt freshman year, just because he is not as fast as some other players at the position. But he will be a very valuable member of the receiving corps due to his versatility and big-game experience. He is also a good blocker for a receiver. He has been a mainstay on the first team this spring.
• Every time senior Saeed Blacknall seems poised for a serious breakout, something unfortunate happens. He emerged as the best receiver in the program last spring (in part because Godwin was limited due to an injury) but then sustained a hand injury early in the 2016 season. After missing four games, he did not round back into top form until the Big Ten Championship showdown with Wisconsin, where he exploded for six catches for 155 yards and two scores — nearly equaling his production from the rest of the season. Then he was suspended from the Rose Bowl for violating a team rule. Talk about a buzz kill.
When healthy and playing, Blacknall is an incredible deep threat. He has run a sub-4.4 40 yard dash. His CAREER yards per catch average is 20.8, and roughly every sixth catch is for a touchdown. If he has anything to prove this spring, it is that he can stay healthy. Alas, we are told he has missed time with a minor injury. That’s not as big an issue now as it will be if it happens in the fall. If healthy, Blacknall has a chance to be QB Trace McSorley’s go-to receiver.
We’re told the staff expects him to be full go in the preseason.
• Redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson is considered one of the breakout players from offseason workouts and spring practice. One source said it’s been like a light has gone on for the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder who had only two catches last season. He is big, strong and athletic, and has vastly improved his route running, hands and downfield blocking.
Johnson is spending a lot of time with the first team this spring, and we’re going to go ahead right now and predict that he will be Penn State’s most improved player in the fall.
• The enigma that is Irvin Charles continues. Last season, PSU head coach James Franklin lauded Charles’ special combination of size (he is just as big as Johnson) and athleticism. And it showed on one key play — his 80-yard TD catch and run vs. Minnesota where he left much smaller DBs in his dust. But he finished the year with only two catches against probably twice that number of drops.
Charles has reportedly been up and down this spring, as well. He’s had a handful of outstanding plays. But every so often, a ball clanks off his hands. That would seem to be the main reason Johnson is seeing more first-team action. But it is important to remember that Charles is only a redshirt sophomore. So he has time to work on his consistency.
• While asking folks about Penn State’s redshirting freshmen last season, a source we really trust said Dae'lun Darien had the best hands on the team. That was a pretty bold statement given the receiving talent in the program. But we caught a glimpse of it ourselves at practice earlier this week, when Darien came away with the ball for a short TD catch despite being well covered by DB T.J. Johnson.
At 6-4, Darien has a great frame. But he is still less than 215 pounds. The key for him is to get stronger and — like all receivers — more consistent. The good news for him is that the staff’s cautious approach with several bumped-up receivers has resulted in more reps. He’s gotten a lot of second-team action.
• DeAndre Thompkins got extra playing time when Blacknall was hurt last season and took advantage. He finished fifth on the team with 27 catches for 440 yards. The focus this spring is on consistency in all aspects of his game — route running, catching the ball (he had a handful of drops last season) and blocking. He has reportedly shown improvement in all areas. He is seeing a lot of action with the first team.
Thompkins is a legit deep threat, and has caught at least one bomb for a score on a go route in scrimmage action this spring. But don’t be surprised if the staff puts the redshirt junior in more positions where he has a chance to generate yards after the catch. Thompkins is one of the fastest players on the team, and one of the keys is doing a better job of using that next fall.
One final note on Thompkins: It is common to see the PSU wideouts working on their skills after each practice is complete. But we were impressed early in the spring when we saw Thompkins teaming up with CB John Reid (before he was injured) to work on their footwork after practice.
• Brandon Polk missed most of last season with an undisclosed injury. Unfortunately, he played in three games before that happened, which prevented him from receiving a medical redshirt. He has been limited this spring due to an injury, but it is not clear if it is something new or something lingering from 2016. We have been told the staff is just playing it safe with him this spring, though, and he should be full go in the preseason. Polk is another explosive athlete who can do damage as a receiver or on jet sweeps.
• K.J. Hamler is a true freshman who enrolled early. He is coming off an ACL injury that cost him most of his senior season at IMG Academy in Florida. So the staff is bringing him along slowly this spring, allowing him to do certain drills in a jersey and helmet, but nothing in pads and nothing that could result in contact. Hamler is a lot like Polk, which is to say dangerous with the ball in his hands. All things considered, it will make sense for PSU to allow him to take his time in his continued rehab with a redshirt this season.
The overall early transition from high school to college has been an easy one for Hamler, who was out on his own before arriving at Penn State. Hamler is from Detroit but — as noted — attended the boarding school IMG last fall.