Penn State’s three leading reception leaders — Parker Washington, Mitchell Tinsley, and Brenton Strange — are all off to the great Roger Goodell-led beyond, meaning the Nittany Lions are going to have to replace 129 receptions, 1,550 receptions, and 12 touchdowns. That’s a tall task for any offense, let alone one that will also be breaking in a new quarterback. But there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings, all the while, Penn State was busy on the transfer market bolstering its wide receiver group for new position coach Marques Hagans.
X: Dante Cephas (RS JR) — Omari Evans (SO) — Anthony Ivey (RS FR)
Z: Tre Wallace (RS SO) — Malik McClain (JR) — Malick Meiga (RS JR)
Slot: KeAndre Lambert-Smith (SR) — Liam Clifford (RS SO) — Kaden Saunders (RS FR)
I am going to keep the wide receiver section shorter (spoiler: I mostly failed) than I have for other positions just because I talked a lot about it when Dante Cephas and Malik McClain committed. You can get extended thoughts on those two right here, but the tldr; version would be:
- Cephas: Really good. Maybe not a bonafide #1 wide receiver, but I struggle to see a situation where he isn’t at least a competent starter. Really, not too dissimilar from what Mitchell Tinsley was this season.
- McClain: Tall, athletic, big deep threat. Will push Tre Wallace for the starting Z job this spring.
Let’s talk about KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who has flashed at times during his career, but overall there has been a lack of consistency for him to really break through. On one play, he might run the cleanest, crispest route where he leaves the secondary biting the dust. But on the next play, he’ll get jammed at the line of scrimmage or pushed off his spot, and get completely taken out of the play. Him improving his consistency is vital because with his speed, agility, and wiggle, he’s a game-changer when he gets the ball in his hands.
One of the more popular theoretical moves on the Penn State interwebs is to move KLS to the slot, where he won’t see nearly as much press coverage and will be able to utilize his short area quickness. With the transfer portal reinforcements in tow, I think that type of move is a bit more realistic — though I think you’ll see a lot less rigidness in the wide receiver positions this coming season. Cephas and KLS, in particular, could easily bounce around between positions.
Behind KLS in the slot is Liam Clifford, who somehow is only heading into his third season with Penn State. Obviously it’s because of Sean plus the fact that Liam was a super early commit, but major Perry Ellis vibes here. Anyway, Clifford wasn’t used a whole bunch during the 2022 season, but he looked pretty solid when given some snaps. He lacks the explosiveness and long speed of some other receivers on the roster, but he’s a sharp route runner, a fluid athlete, and offers a bit more size — 6-foot-1, 200 pounds — than one usually sees in the slot.
Keep an eye on Kaden Saunders though. He wasn’t able to push through for major playing time this past season, instead being served a redshirt season. But after getting some run in the Rose Bowl, the former Top 100 prospect could be in line for that patented “second-year” breakthrough. He lacks elite size at just 5-foot-9, 177 pounds, but there might not be a more dynamic receiver than Saunders. He has big play potential out the wazoo.
For the second-team X spot, I have Omari Evans, but he should be someone who practices at both the X and Z spots. He was a surprise non-redshirt in 2022, given that he was mostly a high school quarterback. Granted, the gist of what he was doing out there last season was running deep routes thanks to his sub-4.4 speed, but it’s impressive that he worked his way onto the field from the first game on. Nice potential here for a kid who is far from a finished product.
Don’t forget about fellow 2022 signees Anthony Ivey and Christian Driver. The latter is making the switch from the secondary, while Ivey got a shoutout from James Franklin during the season. Two talented dudes who will get plenty of run this spring.
Theo Johnson (SR) — Tyler Warren (RS JR) — Andrew Rappleyea (FR)
With Brenton Strange off to the NFL, the majority of the reps in the tight end room will be going to the fourth-year pairing of Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren, a unique duo given their strengths and weaknesses.
I imagine I wasn’t alone in thinking that Johnson would have had a bigger season in 2022, but after getting dinged up in the summer, he was pretty limited until the Minnesota game. He was much better from that point on though, with 18 of his 20 receptions coming during those final seven games once he was full-go health-wise. Provided the good health continues, I would certainly earmark Johnson as someone who can take that next step as a player. He has an impressive combination of size and athleticism, and with how much Mike Yurcich has used the tight ends since he arrived in Happy Valley, I don’t think a 40+ reception, All-B1G type of season is out of the question for Johnson. He’s that talented, and with Penn State breaking in a new quarterback, having the tight end as a safety valve would be a nice come up.
As for Warren, he’s the better blocker of the two, and has mostly been used in that role over the last two seasons. With Strange gone though, I think you’ll see Warren involved in the passing game. Maybe not to Johnson’s level, but a few extra catches — especially down in the red zone — should be expected for the 6-foot-6, 256-pound Warren. I’ll save the New England Patriots analogies for another day... buuuuuuuut ...he’s a better athlete than given credit for.
Now we get to the college football sickos question: who is the third-string tight end? Khalil Dinkins is a redshirt sophomore who was the recipient of a couple Allar garbage-time throws. He’s a bit undersized at just 238 pounds, but checks the boxes as far as length and athleticism. Jerry Cross redshirted this past season as he fought through an injury, but he’s another big time athlete at 6-foot-5, 254 pounds. And then there’s the three-man freshman group: Andrew Rappleyea, Joey Schlaffer, and Mathias Barnwell. Lots and lots of options.
Despite the fact he won’t enroll until the summer, put me down for Rappleyea for three reasons.
- He’s a post-grad, meaning he’s already a year older than the rest of his class. He’s not your usual freshman.
- He’s already a good blocker, which I think is of even more importance when you’re talking about a third tight end getting some legitimate snaps.
- He’s *awesome* (I’ll go more in depth later this afternoon in his Meet The Class blurb) and I am fully ready to add him to the Goo-Goo Gah-Gah Team.