This was supposed to be the season when Penn State’s young wide receivers were going to emerge as go-to players alongside redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler and give quarterback Sean Clifford a bunch of reliable pass catchers.
However, other than sophomore Jahan Dotson, none of the wideouts has made an impact, showing neither the confidence nor the consistency to be an effective complement to Hamler or Dotson.
Hamler (44 receptions) and Dotson (20 receptions) have proven to be excellent intermediate and deep threats, but the other six wideouts who have seen action have combined for 30 catches, and no one has reached 10.
Problems with dropped passes, which was a sore spot last year, have resurfaced, including some key drops Saturday in the Nittany Lions’ 31-26 loss at Minnesota.
Redshirt freshman Justin Shorter, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound former five-star recruit from Monmouth Junction, N.J., has struggled mightily. In his last four games (two starts), he has caught two passes. He dropped two throws against Minnesota, including a sure third-quarter touchdown.
“We’ve got to be more consistent. There’s no doubt about it," head coach James Franklin said at his Tuesday news conference.
“I think it’s a fine line,” he said, referring to drops. "You can’t avoid it and ignore it like it didn’t happen, but it’s got to be addressed. Obviously, during the game, I don’t think you see me or anybody overreact to those guys. It’s just not how we go about our business.
“Now, in practice, we can be hard on guys. In meetings, I wouldn’t say we’re hard, but we’re direct, and we have tough conversations to kind of work through it. But, I think most people and most young people are harder on themselves than you’ll ever be, and that changes how you approach things.
“So, at the end of the day, we’ve got to build their confidence up, and we’ve got to build their fundamentals and skills up so they make those plays, rather than spending so much time on what they didn’t do.”
The 5-11, 175-pound Dotson leads the Lions in average yards-per-catch at 19.2 and has accounted for the season’s longest pass play, 72 yards. He admitted Wednesday that maintaining confidence is hard work.
“It’s very hard to keep your confidence high as a receiver, as you’re not going to touch the ball as many times as maybe a running back would, a quarterback would,” he said. “So, you’ve just got to take every rep 100 percent. You’ve got to trust in your quarterback, trust your O-line, trust everyone, and know they’re going to get their jobs done. When the time comes, you get the ball, you’ve just got to make the most of your opportunities.”
Dotson did not catch a single pass against Minnesota for the first 55 minutes, then snared three down the stretch. His last reception, a 49-yard gain on a pass over the middle on the Lions’ final drive, could have been the game-breaker, but he slipped and went down at the 11.
“I was trying to cut upfield so that the defender on my left could run behind me and miss me, but I just kind of lost my footing as I was doing so,” he said.
With tight end Pat Freiermuth (32 catches), Hamler and Dotson have carried much of the load in the passing game. But, Franklin would like to see the catches more spread out, so that opposing defenses can’t load up on the big three.
“We’ve got to find ways to get those guys involved a little bit more-early in games,” he said. “... But at the end of the day, when the ball comes, you’ve got to make the plays. We have all the faith and confidence that we can do it and that they can do it. We’ve just got to bring it out in them more.”
Buckeye defensive end Chase Young will return from an NCAA suspension to face Penn State in Columbus on Nov. 23.
Ohio State’s best defensive player sat out Saturday’s rout of Maryland and will be sidelined Saturday at Rutgers, after he admitted to accepting a loan last year to fly his girlfriend to the Rose Bowl. The NCAA announced the reinstatement on Wednesday.