UNIVERSITY PARK — In the last three seasons, Josh Gattis coached two All-American wide receivers to record-setting seasons.
At Western Michigan in 2011, Jordan White led the NCAA and set the single-season Mid-American Conference record with 1,911 receiving yards under Gattis’ tutelage. In two seasons at Vanderbilt, Gattis helped Jordan Matthews become the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader for career receptions and set the conference mark with 107 catches in the 2013 regular season.
Penn State lost its All-American wide receiver Allen Robinson — who ranked just behind Matthews nationally with 97 receptions — leaving a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the position.
But Gattis, Penn State’s wide receivers coach, believes he has more than enough talent to work with.
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“I’ve been around some really good receivers, but I truly feel that this is the deepest and most talented I’ve ever been around as far as the number of guys,” said Gattis, who’s entering the fifth year of his coaching career. “We may not have that one or two marquee guy yet, but I think we got a number of guys that can be big-time players in college football.”
While Gattis expressed confidence in his group, head coach James Franklin tempered expectations for the inexperienced receiving corps before Penn State’s first preseason practice Monday. Of the 13 receivers on the roster, there are eight true or redshirt freshmen. Only Geno Lewis and Matt Zanellato have caught passes in their Penn State careers.
Robinson’s 97 catches accounted for 40 percent of the Nittany Lions’ receptions last season. Franklin said he expects the tight ends to make up for most of the production lost after Robinson left for the NFL and second-leading receiver Brandon Felder graduated.
“I’m excited about those young guys, but that’s kind of what it is right now,” Franklin said. “It’s excitement based on what they did in high school, based on what they did when they arrived on campus and the testing and what the players are saying about them.”
Gattis said he thinks a number of the young wide receivers can contribute this season.
The coach called redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton “a rising star in this league” and said Hamilton has an “elite” skill set. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound receiver redshirted last season due to lingering effects of a wrist injury suffered in high school.
Gattis said freshmen DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin are all talented players. Thompkins ran the fastest 40 time on the team during spring testing, Blacknall was a two-time all-state selection in high school and Godwin was first-team all-state at three different positions.
But the unit will depend on the veterans this season.
Lewis and Zanellato each played in all 12 games last season. Lewis is the top returning receiver after making 18 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns, while Zanellato made four receptions for 53 yards.
Lewis started the final two games in 2013 and showed his potential in the season finale against Wisconsin, making three catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
“Now he knows he can do it and he’s seen himself do it on the big stage against great competition,” said tight end Kyle Carter, who finished with 18 receptions during an injury plagued year.
Whether Lewis can produce throughout an entire season as the team’s top receiver remains to be seen.
But Lewis said he’s ready to take on a bigger role after putting in the work during the offseason. He said he improved his route running during morning workouts with quarterback Christian Hackenberg throughout the summer.
And he’s feeling more confident — an attribute that made Robinson special during his standout career.
“His confidence level was off the roof,” Lewis said. “I really learned just be confident in what you do. Go out there and make plays. And once you make plays, can't nobody really say nothing to you.”
Going into the season, though, Lewis and the receivers are unproven.
The youth makes the unit an unknown, and the coaching staff is looking for production from other positions in the passing game.
“One thing we really have is unselfish guys,” Gattis said. “So whether we use more tight ends or running backs sometimes, we’ve got unselfish guys. Guys that just go out there and do what they’re asked and what the coaches ask of them and exceed the expectations.”
That’s what Gattis expects his wide receivers to do this season.
Lewis said the receivers will surprise people despite their inexperience. Gattis thinks the potential will materialize on the field.
“I think this group will be the most talked about group after the season that no one’s talking about right now,” Gattis said. “I think the sky’s the limit.”