With arguably the best wideout trio (Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood) Penn State has ever seen departing, the Lions now have to fill some major gaps for the air attack. Here are the candidates who are expected to make a run at the starting jobs in 2009.

Sure it's early and spring practice isn't even on the horizon yet, but here at FOS, it is never too early to start getting ahead of ourselves. We're nothing if not cart-before-horse thinkers.

Which is exactly what we're as we continue this series, where we look ahead to 2009 to see how Joe Paterno and his staff will deal with key personnel losses.

We've already looked at the key offensive line, quarterback and corner positions. Now it's time to turn our attention to the wide receiver unit.

Penn State loses three veteran receivers in Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams. All made a sigificant impact on the program. Here is a review of what the Lions lose at wideout and how they may go about minimizing the loss next season.

Wide Receiver

Departed Starters: Williams, Norwood and Butler were three completely different types of receivers when they arrived in Happy Valley. Williams was a Scout five-star prospect, while Norwood was viewed by many fans as nothing more than a coaches son and Butler was a walk-on whose size was thought to be his limiting factor to success in the Big Ten.

The three became a dynamic, effective receiving corp with more 6,500 career receiving yards between them (Butler 2,766, Norwood 2,015 and Williams 1,743).

As one observer explained, "Some people will shoot their mouths off about these guys — Williams should have had 1,000 yards a season, Butler disappeared at times — [but that's] B.S. These guys were a complete unit who stepped in for each other when there were double teams, injuries or drop-offs. They did everything the coaches asked of them and overcame injuries, QB issues and so much more. Replacing their hands will be tough; replacing their hearts could be impossible."

Wideout Candidates: Penn State has some promising receivers who will be vying for the starting jobs this off-season.

Brett Brackett (6-foot-6, 235 pounds): Brackett has emerged as a fairly consistent possession receiver, seeing snaps in all 13 games in 2008, with 160 yards on 13 receptions and a touchdown.

"Brett's size makes him a real weapon," an observer said. "He's an east target to hit and that size makes up for his lack of burst off the line. Plus, he's so hard to take down." The coaches have typically played Brackett "inside" since he "has the body to manage the middle [of the field]."

Graham Zug (6-2, 178 pounds): Zug has emerged as a young "clutch" receiver who pulled in 11 passes this past year for 174 yards and two touchdowns. He saw playing time in all 13 games.

"Graham is tough and fearless — he goes after the ball and will punish his body to pull one in. You need that to have a consistent passing game. Butler was that type of guy; never afraid to lay out for a catch," an observer explained. "[Zug] needs to work on his routes just a bit. He needs to stick in his saddle, but he has shown sharp hands and and a good ability to get off the blocks."

Derek Moye (6-5, 198 pounds): Moye has impressed the coaches since he was a true freshman, earning coveted travel spots to away games in 2007 despite no chance to play as a redshirt. Last season he saw reserve action in 10 games, catching three balls for 71 yards and a touchdown.

As one observer said, "Derek's size is a real asset because he knows how to use it to separate from the defense. He's sharp with his runs and just needs to get consistent on his overall technique. But he's made big progress."

As another observer explained, "He's one of those receivers who are precise with their game, so the quarterbacks understand them and get comfortable with them. He just needs to boost up his confidence a bit."

Chaz Powell (6-1, 195 pounds): The former safety was shifted over to wideout this past year and has "settled into the position well." Although he saw action in all 13 games, much of that was with special teams. Powell grabbed two passes for 37 yards. He also averaged 9.2 yards per carry on eight rushes.

"He's probably the leading candidate to step in to play Derrick's [Williams] role this coming year. He's got the power and ability to cut and hit a lane," an observer shared. "He's got to get more comfortable with all the shifts, but he took over the kickoff duties well in the bowl when USC wouldn't kick to Derrick, so I don't see why he won't make a real run at the starting job."

According to another observer, "I think he has the skills to play the slot well — he has power and acceleration. He needs to just get consistent and precise on his runs."

James McDonald (6-2, 200 pounds): McDonald had five catches for 72 yards last season. "I mean, he's improving, but he has work to do. The issue is a few years ago his size was a major benefit and he was looked at like a change-of-pace weapon. Now, with monsters like Brackett, Moye and [A.J.] Price (all over 6-3) who are bigger, it's not such a unique asset to the position."

A.J. Price (6-4, 178 pounds): Price showed impressive receiving skills while redshirtin this past season. He focus on increasing his size. "He's getting there," an observer said. "I'd say he's put on eight to 10 pounds, maybe, but he can handle a lot more. And he'll need it to avoid getting knocked off his saddle."

In terms of his technique, observers have been positive, saying, "He squares up, looks the ball in and does pretty well protecting it." As another observer said, "He's getting better at his route-running; just needs to make them second nature."

Fresh Faces: PSU's Class of 2009 already has a stable of potential wideout prospects who have committed. Among them are Shawney Kersey, Devon Smith, Curtis Drake, Brandon Felder, Christian Kuntz and Derrick Thomas. Justin Brown could also be an impressive addition if he elects to become a Nittany Lion on Letter of Intent day next week.

The (Early) Verdict: The edge goes to experience here. Brackett and Zug both saw extensive time this past season and spent a lot of time working with the veterans. Also, Powell clearly has the inside lane to step in for Williams. Look for Moye and Price to emerge in the roles Brackett and Zug held last season — namely, dependable backups. The question is who among the stable of true freshmen will emerge to break into the rotation.

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