WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Devon Smith left the team for personal reasons. Justin Brown fled to Oklahoma after the NCAA announced major sanctions against Penn State this past summer.
The defections didn’t immediately propel Brandon Moseby-Felder toward the top of Penn State’s wide receiving hierarchy. A nagging hamstring injury limited the junior throughout spring drills and summer workouts.
The physical and mental anguish caused by the setback helps Moseby-Felder appreciate games such as this past weekend’s 34-9 victory at Purdue.
His ascent as one of quarterback Matt McGloin’s top targets continued with a six-catch, 129-yard performance. Penn State improved to 6-3 overall and 4-1 in Big Ten play with the victory.
Moseby-Felder also reached a place he had never touched during a college game — the end zone. He outraced Purdue’s secondary and grabbed a 41-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. The reception was Moseby-Felder’s fourth of 40 or more yards in the past three games.
The long passes are a product of regular work involving McGloin and Penn State’s receiving corps, which lost three veterans, Smith, Brown and Shawney Kersey, in a four-month stretch. Moseby-Felder said Penn State devotes one practice period each week to executing deep routes.
Pain-free practices represent a refreshing feeling.
The ailing hamstring prevented him from quickly impressing new head coach Bill O’Brien and wide receivers coach Stan Hixon, who spent last season working with the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, respectively.
“I missed the whole spring and whole summer,” Moseby-Felder said. “They probably didn’t think I was going to play this year. They stuck with me, and I’m here.”
A recent surge — Moseby-Felder has caught 17 passes for 259 yards in the past three games — has swelled his season totals to 25 catches for 362 yards. The numbers rank third on the team behind sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson and redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Carter. Moseby-Felder didn’t catch his first pass until a Week 3 victory over Navy.
O’Brien likes what the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Moseby-Felder adds to the offense.
“He’s really done everything we have asked him to do this year,” O’Brien said. “He’s caught important passes for us. He doesn’t have many drops. He blocks in the running game. He’s a smooth route runner. He’s an instinctive, smart guy. He can play both outside positions. He can play in the slot. He’s a good player.”
Perhaps no player has benefited more from Moseby-Felder’s emergence than Robinson, who will enter Saturday’s game at 18th-ranked Nebraska (7-2, 4-1) with a conference-leading 57 receptions for 689 yards. Opposing defenses are noticing Robinson’s sustained success, but the presence of a healthy Moseby-Felder could make sliding multiple defenders toward Robinson unfeasible.
“If teams bring a safety on my side or something like that, Brandon is definitely going to have big games,” Robinson. “I have had a pretty good season so far, so if teams want to double, then Brandon can get 100 yards.”
Hamstring injuries are perplexing. On some days, a player can run. On other days, he might be forced to shed calories on a stationary bike or elliptical machine.
Moseby-Felder didn’t return to full speed until late September. Now, he’s combining with Robinson to form a steady wide receiving duo.
“We’re pretty much similar,” Moseby-Felder said. “It’s a very, very good competition with me and Allen. We talk about it all the time about who’s going to have the bigger game and who’s going to have more catches. That kind of motivates us to do our best.”
Notes: O’Brien is one of five Big Ten coaches since 1970 to win his first three conference road games. Ohio State’s Earle Bruce and Urban Meyer, Iowa’s Hayden Fry and Michigan’s Gary Moeller also achieved the feat. ... Penn State received eight points in the Associated Press poll released Sunday. The Nittany Lions received the 11th-most points of teams outside the Top 25.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.