In February 1999 Penn State signed a small recruiting class that included a very highly touted WR prospect from City College HS in Baltimore named Bryant Johnson. Penn State had high hopes for Bryant, and after a shaky start that included a visit to the eye doctor it pretty much worked out that way for Johnson.
Bryant led the team in receptions his junior and senior years before becoming a first round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the April 2003 NFL draft.
The 1999 off season was interesting for at least one other Penn State wide receiver. In the summer months that year Chafie Fields went off campus to attend a Florida WR camp being run by former Penn State WR O.J. McDuffie.
I don't think that made the folk's in Happy Valley real, well, happy. Not that it impacted Fields playing time or performance or anything like that, quite the contrary in fact. Fields had the best year of his career and did things his senior year that he had never been able to do before that.
My impression of how this went over was formed prior to our opening game that year when Penn State sent some key people on the road to do some of those informal "get out the interest" events in the larger cities around the state. I attended one of those events where the question about Fields' Florida excursion came up.
The key person who answered made it pretty clear what the staff felt about Fields' trip, and we are not talking about a ringing endorsement here. Basically, I got the impression that the staff felt they could teach Chafie what he needed to know and that he wasn't going to learn anything in Florida that they couldn't teach him in State College, Pa.
Was Chafie on to something? That's hard to know.
In 1998 Chafie had 25 receptions for 369 yards for a team that played an out of conference schedule of Southern Miss, Bowling Green, and a 2-9 Pitt squad. It's not like anyone was taking receptions away from him either because he led the team in yardage that year.
After he returned from that WR camp in Florida he caught 39 passes for 692 yards. Having watched all of those games he looked like he had markedly improved from one year to the next, but how much of that is due to his Florida road trip is uncertain.
It probably doesn't matter anyway.
The mere fact Fields thought he needed to go has probably given opposing recruiters all the ammunition they needed, and don't kid yourself, this is the kind of story they'd repeat to every kid coming down the pike.
Bryant Johnson played some WR as a true freshman in 1999. The highlight of his year may have been a 2nd quarter 16 yard touchdown pass he caught in the back of the north end zone against Minnesota.
The leading pass catchers among WR's in 2000 were Eddie Drummond, Kenny Watson, true freshman Tony Johnson and Sam Crenshaw. Penn State would have a very rough fall that year.
Bryant played some WR in 2000 as well, but he was having some vision troubles and they had to sit him while they got that ironed out. He would have only 4 receptions that entire season, but they knew he was a player.
The only other receivers not yet mentioned to catch a pass that year were walk on Steve Delich and transfer Rod Perry, neither of whom were in the future of the Penn State receiving corps. We did have one true freshman WR in 2000 in Ryan Scott, but he was still on the scout team. Still, the staff would have had a decent idea of what kind of player he could become.
The bottom line in 2000 was that we were not doing real well at the WR spot that year and there were only two players, Bryant and Tony Johnson, who played who could have figured into the long term plans for the position. Ryan Scott and Gerald Smith were prospects at that time, but neither had ever done anything at the position.
At this point in time, the staff would have had to have known they needed to look at the future for talent. They were recruiting several blue chip WR's that year, but some had chosen to go elsewhere.
Terrence Phillips committed to Penn State that year. Penn State also wound up with Ernie Terrell and Kinta Palmer signing in February 2001, but Terrell was offered late that recruiting season and Palmer was offered right at the very end before signing day.
It is a fact that neither Terrell or Palmer was hotly pursued by the kinds of schools that Penn State fans would call traditional powers. Terrell had a few other offers, but not from majors. Palmer, a South Carolina native, hadn't been offered by either of South Carolina or Clemson, the two schools you'd have figured would have known the most about him.
The 2001 season rolls around and Penn State, coming off a losing season in 2000, looks to do better. The Nits open the season and their 5th year QB Matt Senneca just struggles mightily. Zack Mills would eventually replace Senneca as the starting QB.
Bryant Johnson would lead the WR's with 51 catches for 866 yards that year. Tony Johnson had 27 receptions for 504 yards. The only other WR to catch even a single pass was Eddie Drummond, and he was moved to tailback at the end of that year because he struggled to catch the ball.
In the fall of 2001 Penn State had to know they were in dire need for future talent at the receiver position. Gerald Smith had been moved to WR that fall, but he didn't catch a single pass. Ryan Scott didn't catch a single pass either. The freshmen, Phillips, Palmer and Terrell didn't even play.
Penn State was recruiting some big time high school talent that fall in guys like Maurice Stovall from Archbishop Carroll HS in Radnor, Pa. And Steve Breaston from Woodland Hills HS in Pittsburgh, but they couldn't land either of them.
Penn State was also recruiting Josh Hannum from Strath Haven HS in Wallingford, Pa. that fall, and had Notre Dame not gone thru "transcript gate" he might be in South Bend right now. Thankfully, in February of 2002 he signed with Penn State, but he has yet to make an impact on the field.
The 2002 season saw Bryant Johnson have a huge year. As noted earlier, he would become a first round draft pick in April of this year. Tony Johnson caught 34 balls for 549 yards last year.
But perhaps it's what didn‘t happen in 2002 that should have worried everyone. Gerald Smith caught all of 11 passes last fall, and Kinta Palmer and Ernie Terrell caught all of one pass apiece. Terrence Phillips went 0 for 2002 as he barely got on the field.
All four of these guys should have gotten some playing time in the 5 close games that Penn State was involved in during the 2002 season, and as the primary reserves they should have had a lot of minutes against the 8 teams that Penn State basically blew off the field last year.
But one of them catches only 11 passes, two others catch a single pass apiece? Terrence Phillips and Ryan Scott catch no passes at all? Was Penn State so caught up in Larry Johnson's Heisman run that they basically ignored their young receivers? You could hardly fault Penn State fans for feeling this may have been the case.
Here is the bottom line on this point - if in 2002 you want young players to be successful down the road you can't ignore the numerous chances you are given to play them. This staff was given the 2nd half of 8 games last fall, or most of it in those contests, to work these guys into things. It just didn't happen.
Penn State did sign a kid in February of 2003 that looks like a very good prospect in Terrell Golden. I have heard from too many people that saw Golden, both down in Virginia, at the Penn State camp, and at the Virginia Tech camp to say anything other than that he appears to be the same kind of prospect that Bryant Johnson was four years ago. Add in the fact that Golden has long jumped 23' 3" in competition and you get the idea that he really is a gifted athlete.
Penn State also gained a February 2003 commitment from Brent Wise out of Central Dauphin HS in Harrisburg. But Wise and Golden are not playing yet, and whether or not they do anything once they get on the field is anyone's guess at this point.
Tony Johnson is the leading receiver right now. Kinta Palmer and Terrence Phillips were starting in game one against Temple. But through 8 games Palmer has 6 receptions and Phillips none. Ernie Terrell has all of 5 receptions and Ryan Scott hasn't developed enough to even get on the field.
Things got so bad this year that Gerald Smith, moved to corner in August, had to be moved back to wide receiver in September. Mo Humphrey, another future corner, was also moved to wide receiver.
Josh Hannum, dinged up previously, finally saw action in game 8 against Iowa and caught one pass.
Fans argue all the time about whether it is recruiting or development of players that is causing the ever increasing number of losses to mount at Penn State.
It's probably a little of both.
Penn State swung and missed on a lot of very high end receiver talent in the past four years. The receivers I'm talking about are now starring elsewhere. Players like Mark Jones from Strath Haven High in Wallingford, Pa., New Jersey natives like Carlos Perez and Ray Williams, Philly product Maurice Stovall and Pittsburgh native Steve Breaston.
Throw in skill players like James Banks, Airese Curry, Kelvin Grant, and Cedar Crest star Jaren Hayes and the list grows longer of players who could be helping Penn State this year if they were in State College.
Finally, you have guys like Lee Evans, an Ohio native who was not highly recruited but who was a big time prospect who wound up a star in Madison. Penn State could use a guy like him.
Whether it's Penn State's conservative offense, it's predictability, opposing recruiters and their stories, or the national media constantly harping that Penn State lacks skill players, it all amounts to one thing - many high end kids are getting away, and the ones that have come to Penn State are not getting the job done.
One thing is clear. If the Penn State football staff wants to turn this thing around they are going to have to overcome the dynamics they currently have in place. Telling the media you are young only cuts it so long. Sooner or later you have to put some talent on the field that is going to win some football games.
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