Penn State’s passing offense will have to reload in 2018.
DaeSean Hamilton, the Nittany Lions’ top receiver (494 yards, five touchdowns), runs out of eligibility soon. So does tight end Mike Gesicki, whose four touchdowns and 30 catches this season rank second and third on the team, respectively. Running back Saquon Barkley and his team-leading 36 catches will likely move on to the NFL, while wideout Saeed Blacknall graduates, too.
Still, the Nittany Lions’ passing game is in fine position to sustain those losses.
Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis joined reporters for a Thursday teleconference, highlighting those who are set to make an impact in 2018 and beyond.
DeAndre Thompkins, redshirt junior
Thompkins has always been a big-play wideout for the Nittany Lions. The North Carolina native has seven receptions of 30 or more yards in the past two seasons.
But Gattis believes Thompkins (18 catches, 239 yards) has more value than what’s shown on the stat sheet.
“I think DeAndre is playing at an extremely high level throughout the season,” Gattis said. “His numbers may not show the impact he’s having on our team, but I think he’s probably playing at the best level in our room from a consistency standpoint.
“He’s a guy who’s eager to develop. He really cares about being great. He’s blessed with tremendous speed, and he plays with a different speed on the field. It shows up on film, and other teams notice it. I’m pleased with how far he’s come. He’s a smart kid, smart football player. He’s a student of the game who can play all three positions for us.”
Juwan Johnson, redshirt sophomore
Johnson was the star of the spring. Everyone from quarterback Trace McSorley to defensive tackle Curtis Cothran said he was primed for a breakout campaign.
With 30 catches, 362 receiving yards and a touchdown — the touchdown at Iowa — Johnson’s contributing this year.
“Everybody’s been playing within their roles, and I think Juwan has made some big plays for us throughout the season,” Gattis said. “He’s done extremely well in the run game, too, creating explosive plays with down-the-field blocking. The thing about what we do offensively, you look across the board, our guys are probably evenly targeted. You think about how much we target our tight end, our X receiver, H receiver and even our running back, sometimes guys may not have huge, popping numbers.”
Brandon Polk, redshirt sophomore
Polk missed much of the 2016 season due to a medical redshirt, and the speedster has worked in the slot this year, backing up Hamilton.
Gattis thinks Polk (7 catches, 100 yards, touchdown) can fill Hamilton’s role in 2018.
“I’m very, very excited about his future in the slot position,” Gattis said. “Unfortunately, he’s playing behind another great player. ... I think he’s going to have a smooth transition when DaeSean graduates.
Irvin Charles, redshirt sophomore
Charles is seeing “20-plus snaps a game” but still doesn’t have a catch in 2017. Meanwhile, backup quarterback Tommy Stevens has six grabs.
Still, Gattis isn’t discouraged. He believes the 6-foot-4 target has what it takes to bounce back and become a viable option in the offense.
“Irv’s going to have a great future here,” he said. “He’s going to be ready for his opportunities when they come, and he’s going to take advantage of those opportunities. He’s a guy that has to keep staying positive and keep believing that the right opportunities are going to come at the right time. Things will happen for him that way.”
The redshirt freshmen
With Hamilton and Blacknall moving on, Penn State will see fresh faces out there, too.
The Nittany Lions have three wideouts currently redshirting: KJ Hamler, Mac Hippenhammer and Cam Sullivan-Brown. Hamler was a four-star recruit, while the other two were three-star prospects.
Gattis likes all three to contribute next season and beyond.
“KJ, I think he’s a difference-maker with his speed and his quickness in short areas of space,” he said. “He’s a guy who could possibly be our fastest wide receiver on the field. He’s got extreme confidence in his ability to run routes and separate from people. He’s going to be an exciting player in the future, as well as Mac Hippenhammer, who’s a guy that as he continues to develop, he has a great skill-set. He reminds me a lot of DeAndre Thompkins in his ability to play inside and outside. He can run any route we ask him and work his releases. Cam Sullivan-Brown, I think he’s going to have a bright future for us. Very mature early on, and he had a great training camp.
“They’ve still got a long way to go, but when you think about the future and where that room sits in terms of ability and talent, each one of those guys brings a different skill-set that’ll help us win games in the future.”