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Potential Penn State Problem #4: Catching On

Continuing our countdown of concerns heading into the 2009 season.

Innovative offensive systems are great and everything, but you can't just replace three of the all-time leading receivers in school history without missing a beat.  Can't happen, especially considering that two of those three former receivers are locks to make NFL teams and the third is making a hell of a run at a roster spot in Cleveland despite being the smallest guy in camp.  Essentially, Penn State is trying to replace four years of starting experience (not to mention a ton of talent) at each of its top three receiver spots. 

Just looking at last year's statistics, here's what we're trying to replace:

RECEIVING  GP  No.  Yards  Avg   TD  Long  Avg/G 
Butler, Deon   13  47  810  17.2  70  62.3 
Williams, D.   13  44  485  11.0  39  37.3 
Norwood, Jordan  11  41  637  15.5  55  57.9 

None of the returning players (including the returning tight ends) averaged more than one catch per game.  One! Here's what is coming back:

RECEIVING            GP  No.  Yards  Avg   TD  Long  Avg/G 

Brackett, Brett  13  13  160  12.3  20  12.3 
Zug, Graham   13  11  174  15.8  49  13.4 
Quarless, A.   12  11  117  10.6  17  9.8 
Shuler, Mickey   13  120  13.3  24  9.2 
McDonald, James  10  72  14.4  25  7.2 
Moye, Derek   10  71  23.7  33  7.1 
Powell, Chaz   13  37  18.5  22  2.8 

This is not exactly inspiring.  Not when our quarterback is adjusting to life behind three new offensive linemen and two others who are playing new positions.  But let's take a look at the returning personnel, and see if we can't find some light in the darkness:

#5 Graham Zug (Jr., 6'2" 183) - Former walk-on, vaporizer of all that is evil, caught two touchdowns last year (Temple, MIchigan State) and a 49 yard bomb that set up PSU's opening field goal at Ohio State.  The type of player you love to have on the field as a third or fourth option, but not exactly a guy who you expect to beat the other team's #1 or #2 corners with his quickness.  Sure-handed and smart.  Really, he's a less-quick version of Jordan Norwood who can find the soft spot in a defense and catch the ball.

#83 Brett Brackett (Jr., 6'6" 232) - Obviously, the sheer size is Brackett's main attribute.  He scored one touchdown last year, a tough catch over the middle for Penn State's first touchdown against Temple (2:20 of this video).  He's quicker than most people probably realize, but for all practical purposes he's a fast tight end.  Like Zug, he has good hands, but also has the advantage of creating mismatches with his height.  Also caught three short passes (all on first down, curiously) against USC in the Rose Bowl. 

Zug and Brackett are both possession types whose success mostly depends on other offensive threats to stretch the defense.  Bypassing the tight ends on the list (they should actually be a strength of this year's team, assuming Andrew Quarless seizes upon his last chance as a collegiate player), we find two guys who can be those explosive offensive threats.

#6 Derek Moye (So., 6'5" 198) - Caught three whole passes last year, none of which meant anything.  Only one of the receptions was in Big Ten play, and it was in garbage time against Indiana.  It's hard to underestimate how badly Penn State needs Moye to be a reliable target this year.  His height will be quite useful, but Moye is also deceptively fast and is likely to end up at Penn State's primary deep threat in 2009.  He might not break a cornerback's ankles on a ten yard out pattern, but should fly by most safeties if he has a 10-15 yard running start.

#2 Chaz Powell (So. 6'1" 197) - Fast as anything, but can he catch?  That's the main concern with Powell, who was moved from defense to offense for good after he took a short pass 55 yards for a touchdown against Coastal Carolina.  That was pretty much the extent of Powell's offensive contributions last season -- two catches and eight rushes.  He's extremely likely to be one of PSU's kickoff returners, having averaged nearly 29 yards on nine returns. 

These are your top four wide receivers for 2009 -- not exactly a group that strikes fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators across the country.  Having Daryll Clark at quarterback helps, and they'll have a few games in which to settle into their new roles, but will they be able to get open and catch the ball when Iowa comes to town?  Will any of the speedy freshmen, including Curtis Drake (#7, 5'11" 169), Justin Brown (#19, 6'3" 208), Shawney Kersey (#4, 6'1" 187), and Devon Smith (#20, 5'nothin" 100&nothin'), be getting any playing time by then?  Maybe, but considering the experience in front of them on the depth chart, don't count on those guys being major contributors anytime soon.