After departures at wide receiver, Penn State coaches hope that four freshmen can bring energy and production to the position in 2020.

John Dunmore and T.J. Jones, each of whom played in one game while redshirting in their first season, and true freshmen KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Jaden Dotton are seeking to impress and move into prominent roles on the receiving units.

The Nittany Lions and first-year wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield could use the help. KJ Hamler, last year’s top receiver, was lost to the Denver Broncos in the second round of the NFL Draft and Dan Chisena has graduated. Two other wideouts, former five-star recruit Justin Shorter and little-used Mac Hippenhammer, have transferred.

Of the three holdovers who played significant snaps in 2019, only junior Jahan Dotson (27 receptions, 488 yards, five touchdowns) caught as many as 10 passes. Redshirt sophomore Daniel George made four starts and had nine catches, and redshirt junior Cam Sullivan-Brown played in just four games.

As a group, wide receivers totaled 121 catches and averaged 139.8 yards per game, both the team’s lowest totals in the last five years. But Stubblefield, the fourth wide receivers coach at Penn State in four years, said it’s not fair to carry an “underachievers” label into the new season.

“There’s a lot of guys in the room that did not even play,” he said. “I’m approaching these guys with, whatever is said about last year’s team, who had a phenomenal year, that this is 2020 and we have guys in this room that need to be ready to take the next step in their career, in our development, to just flat-out produce.”

Dunmore and Jones have a year in the program under their belt although all the wideouts will be learning a system that has been re-tinkered by new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.

“It is making sure that they’re doing more than just what we are allowed to do, to make sure that they’re ready to go with what to do,” Stubblefield said. “When we get to fall camp, we’re going more into the technique side and more into how to get things done.

“We want to pass that stage. That’s something that I’ve been challenging all the guys, but specifically T.J. and J.D., to make sure they come in here prepared to know what to do so we can work out all the kinks on how to do it.”

A pair of four-star recruits, Lambert-Smith and Dottin enrolled in January so they did get acquainted with their coaches and went through winter workouts before the pandemic sent everyone home.

“I'm excited to see what Dottin brings to the table,” Stubblefield said. “When you talk to him off the field, he's kind of calm, kind of very collected. I'm excited to see him flip that switch on when he gets onto the field, to have a little dog come out of him.

“KeAndre, he wants it. He has something different in him … some sort of different motivation because you can tell he wants it. He's willing to put the work in to reach that goal. We talk about the process; he wants the process. He wants the hard stuff. He wants to get coached. He has a little bit of that mentality of hating to lose, which is what I love.”

Replacing KJ Hamler, who was drafted by Denver, won't be easy.
Gene J. Puskar / AP
Replacing KJ Hamler, who was drafted by Denver, won't be easy.

Certainly the biggest challenge in acclimating the young players is that all teaching has to be done remotely. Stubblefield said quizzes are part of the plan but there are also interactive methods.

“I know that they've been going out and getting some work done,” he said. “We try to talk about some of the technique and pull up some film of what we did do in winter camp, because we had some periods of time we were able to do some individual work. We’re breaking it down to where you're crawling, you're walking, you’re jogging, until you're sprinting.”

It would appear to be a difficult task to get everyone up to speed for whenever the time arrives to get the entire team together again. But Stubblefield feels he’s got some guys that can get it done.

“There’s some talent in that room,” he said. “There are some guys in that room who really want to be great. It’s really going to challenge them over this period of time to see who is learning the playbook the way they need to learn it, who is going out there and working the technique that we talk about in order to put themselves in the best position once we have a camp.”