Amid wholesale changes on Penn State's roster — from finding a replacement at middle linebacker to identifying a new tight end — wide receiver is an area of intrigue flying under-the-radar this spring. And another layer was added to the complex situation on Tuesday afternoon.
Brandon Polk — once seen as the natural successor to DaeSean Hamilton in the slot — said on a conference call that he has moved outside to the "Z" receiver. And with Juwan Johnson missing time, DeAndre Thompkins taking more snaps inside and fresh faces receiving praise, wideout has become the most interesting situation on Penn State's offense.
"DeAndre and Juwan have done a great job in particular of taking that group under their wing, and Brandon Polk, as well," senior safety Nick Scott said of the wide receivers. "They've been leading those guys and teaching them to keep up the trend of great wide receivers we have here."
With Hamilton off to the NFL, soon to be the second Penn State wideout drafted in as many years, it seemed obvious that Polk would slide right in to the slot position. The Virginia native sat behind Hamilton on the depth chart in 2017, and former Penn State wide receivers coach Josh Gattis said last season that Polk would have "a smooth transition when DaeSean graduates."
But it's not November anymore. Gattis is no longer in Happy Valley, and Penn State's situation at wideout has since changed.
Johnson hasn't practiced in the any of the three practices open to the media. Listed by James Franklin as someone who "won't do any live work" during his spring press conference, don't expect Johnson to participate in the Blue-White Game next Saturday. But when he returns, Johnson is the starting "X" receiver and Trace McSorley's No. 1 option. No question.
The real fluidity shows up elsewhere. Polk, by virtue of announcing his position change, confirmed a report by Lions 247 that Thompkins is taking on more snaps in the slot. Thompkins started at the "Z" last season, so this is, at least in the meantime, a like-for-like switch between the redshirt senior and Polk.
A starting group with Thompkins working the slot and Johnson and Polk handling the outside would be an experienced one, and Polk is confident in how his transition is going.
"It's truly a blessing to kind of be the guy out there at 'Z,' " said Polk, who found out about the move a week or two before spring got underway. "I've been working for this moment since I pretty much got here, and it feels pretty good for them to actually have that confidence in me."
Still, there's no guarantee that Johnson-Thompkins-Polk is the starting combination come Sept. 1.
Redshirt freshman KJ Hamler, who has featured exclusively in the slot this spring, could land that starting role, pushing Thompkins back to the outside and moving Polk to a reserve role yet again. Franklin said Hamler was the "buzz of camp" two weeks ago, while Thompkins called the young speedster "a lightning bolt."
Even Polk praised the 5-foot-9, 172-pound pass-catcher.
"He's creating explosive plays, blocking, doing everything the coaches are asking him to do," the redshirt junior said. "He's out there basically saying, 'I want this job.' "
Whether or not Hamler starts surely won't be decided by the end of spring. Franklin, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and new wideouts coach David Corley have plenty of time between now and Week 1.
But right now, Hamler is making it hard on the coaching staff. And Polk's position change only adds another level of difficulty to figuring out Penn State's future at wideout.