DALLAS –– Penn State lost one of its three starting wide receivers earlier this month when Justin Shorter entered the transfer portal and was subsequently removed from the roster.

After Saturday’s Cotton Bowl against Memphis, the Nittany Lions could lose their top target –– KJ Hamler –– to the draft.

That would leave Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth as the only real receiving threats with any significant amount of playing time heading into 2020.

Penn State signed five receivers in its most recent recruiting class, and freshmen John Dunmore and TJ Jones will likely have roles next season, but Daniel George is another player whose development could be important for the future of the offense under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.

But before George looks toward 2020, he’s been focusing on regaining both his health and his confidence this month.

“December has been about feeling like myself again, getting my hand back and trying to play faster,” George said at Cotton Bowl media day on Thursday. “My hand was holding me back, but now I feel like I’m coming back into my own and playing where I need to be.”

The former four-star recruit out of Maryland has just seven catches for 85 yards this season, but is once again listed as a starter for the Nittany Lions ahead of Saturday’s bout with Memphis. His 6-foot-2 frame has his teammates excited for what he can do now that he’s fully recovered from a hand injury he suffered earlier this season.

“He’s worked a lot at the Z-receiver and you definitely see his improvement each day in practice,” senior cornerback John Reid said. “He’s definitely a lot more comfortable. He has good hands and has definitely improved in his route running, he does a lot more in his routes that we weren’t used to.”

George was briefly in the spotlight as a true freshman last season when he and Sean Clifford connected on a 95-yard touchdown pass in the second half against Kent State, a play that set a record for the longest play and touchdown in program history.

But Clifford and George continued to work on their chemistry over the offseason and it’s a big reason why he’ll be counted on once again this Saturday.

“I have a ton of confidence in Daniel,” Clifford said. “Obviously with Justin leaving, that’s a whole other thing to step up. Daniel’s an extremely hard working guy –– he’s one of those guys in the summer that if I needed someone to throw to, he’s someone that I could call up and he could be there in five minutes.”

Penn State could lose KJ Hamler if he chooses to declare for the NFL draft.
Al Goldis / AP
Penn State could lose KJ Hamler if he chooses to declare for the NFL draft.

Even though George will technically be a “returning starter” heading into next season, nothing is guaranteed. Even if Hamler does decide to return, there’s no guarantee as to who will start opposite Jahan Dotson at the second outside receiver spot.

George will likely be a front-runner in the spring, but Dunmore, Jones and incoming freshman KeAndre Lambert, who is enrolling in January, will all be in the mix. For Dunmore and Jones specifically, this bowl prep period has been important.

“We do a lot of good-on-good work, which allows them to show the development they’ve had all season in a really competitive setting,” Reid said.

At this time last year, drops were dominating the conversation about Penn State’s wide receivers, and while drops aren’t a concern heading into the bowl this year, consistency is. George said the wide receivers need to be “complete game changers” for the offense and being consistent each week is the first step toward that.

If what Minnesota’s receivers did to Penn State’s secondary back in November is any indication as to what’s to come next season, the potential for big plays from the receivers is only going to grow.

You see the flashes that they can bring,” Clifford said. “They’re going to be prepared to contribute next year.”