With six games gone and six to go, Penn State’s highest-ranked offensive recruit in more than a decade and the Nittany Lions’ star of training camp have yet to make an impact. And it remains to be seen if they will in 2018.
True freshmen wide receivers Justin Shorter and Jahan Dotson, as well as Daniel George, have been virtual non-factors this season. All three debuted in a 63-10 rout of Kent State, and George made program history with a fourth-quarter 95-yard catch-and-run from Sean Clifford. But that is the only catch between three high school stars who combined to boast 159 receptions and 33 touchdowns as seniors.
Shorter — a five-star talent and the No. 8 player in the 2018 recruiting class, per 247 Sports — came to Happy Valley with unprecedented expectations. Dotson was praised throughout camp by everyone from James Franklin to Trace McSorley. And it’s not as if Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk have blown anyone away this year.
So, what gives? Why are Shorter, Dotson and George not involved more at the midpoint of 2018? Simply put, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready yet.
“We are constantly looking and saying, ‘Is there someone that can help us?’” Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. “Running routes in high school (is different), when you’re very rarely going against another Division I athlete, and you may see one, maybe two, on a crazy week maybe three coverages. So now not only do you have to be able to beat the defender over you physically, but then you also have to know all the nuances in terms of how the routes get adjusted based on certain coverages or pressures or blitzes.
“And that chemistry with Trace, I think that’s what you’ve seen a few times this year where you see Trace go to throw the ball, and he pulls back because he’s expecting a guy to run a route differently than the way it was run (in practice). So what we are trying to do is ... get those guys up to speed, but also be a little bit more consistent with our running backs, receivers, tight ends in the passing game, because that’s an area that we’re not probably as explosive or as efficient as we need to be right now.”
In other words, the Nittany Lions already have issues in the passing game, and adding true freshmen to the equation would only bring on more growing pains. Especially considering the strides that have to be made in learning the offense.
Redshirt freshman wideout Mac Hippenhammer — KJ Hamler’s backup in the slot — said Wednesday that the playbook is something Shorter, Dotson and George “need to work on.”
Wide receiver coach David Corley expanded on that a bit three weeks ago.
“Once you break out of training camp, things kind of change up a little bit,” Corley said on a conference call prior to the Ohio State game. “On a week-to-week basis, depending on your opponent, there are little tweaks and little things that go into the gameplan. Things aren’t as vanilla for these guys as it was during training camp.”
That has led to Corley, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and the staff to rely on their veteran receivers. Dotson, who reminded Johnson of DaeSean Hamilton in August, sits third on the depth chart at slot receiver behind Hamler and Hippenhammer. George is third at the “X” position behind Johnson and Cam Sullivan-Brown. Meanwhile, Shorter — who dealt with an injury setback in training camp — still isn’t listed on the depth chart.
Given recent history, Shorter’s lack of production is surprising. From 2014 to 2017, there were 10 wideouts ranked as five-star prospects by 247 Sports. None of them redshirted — which is where Shorter is seemingly headed — and they combined to average 31.5 catches, 437.8 receiving yards and 3.5 touchdowns as true freshmen.
But, considering the injury concerns and veteran players ahead of Shorter, Corley isn’t disappointed with the highly touted wideout. He’s not disappointed with Dotson or George, either.
“When guys come to college, especially a guy like (Shorter) who has the rankings from high school, there’s a lot of expectations. But this is a different level. Everything is kicked up a notch,” the coach said. “It’s a long season. Justin, along with those other guys in that class, there’s no telling what lies ahead for those guys as this season continues to move along. We’re just going to continue to get those guys ready.”