Penn State’s new wide receivers coach aware of challenges
Gerad Parker hasn’t delved into KJ Hamler’s film. He hasn’t broken down what Jahan Dotson did so well down the stretch, what Justin Shorter’s ceiling is or what Penn State’s pass-catchers need to work on in spring practice. Parker, the Nittany Lions’ new wide receivers coach, hasn’t had the time.
But on Wednesday, when the dust all but settled on National Signing Day, Parker was back in State College from the recruiting trail and had a chance to catch his breath. And get peppered with questions from a roomful of reporters in the Beaver Stadium media room.
Parker, speaking publicly for the first time since his arrival on Jan. 10, knows why he’s here. David Corley, originally hired to coach Penn State’s running backs last offseason, was fired the day after the Citrus Bowl for the wide receivers’ underwhelming showing in 2018. Drops plagued the unit — namely Juwan Johnson, Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins — as Trace McSorley’s completion percentage plummeted. None of those players will suit up for Penn State next season, and Corley won’t be roaming the sidelines, either.
Instead, Parker will be the face of the wide receiver room. He was brought on to correct the mistakes that killed Penn State last year, hired to get the best out of a young crop of receivers. And Parker believes he can put fans’ minds at ease in 2019.
“I’m perfectly aware of the challenges,” the 38-year-old assistant said. “Hopefully I’m equipped to kind of carry those for them and get the room wired to be able to handle tough times. That’s what we’re supposed to do as adults: Stare down the barrel with them and help them become better, help myself become better and see what kind of product we put on the field in a year.”
And last year, the Nittany Lions’ product on the field wasn’t good enough. As James Franklin pointed out Wednesday, the Nittany Lions rushed for more yards a season after Saquon Barkley left. Go figure. But the passing game didn’t live up to the standard Joe Moorhead set before leaving for Mississippi State.
McSorley’s 66.5 percent completion rate in 2017 dropped to 53.2 in 2018. Penn State went from having four 40-reception pass-catchers in 2017 (Barkley, Johnson, Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton) to one in 2018 (Hamler). The Nittany Lions recorded 148 catches for 10 yards or more in 2017, ranking 17th in college football. This past season? 105 such receptions, good for 82nd nationally. And McSorley never eclipsed 300 yards through the air after doing so 10 times in the previous two seasons.
Not all of that was on Corley. As Hamler tweeted following the coach’s firing, it’s on the wide receivers to catch the ball — and frankly, Johnson, Thompkins and Polk struggled to do that. But Franklin explained that while Corley’s dismissal still “bothers” him, it had to be done.
“I still struggle with that today because I understand the impact that it has,” the head coach said. “I also have a responsibility to the other coaches and staff members in my program. I also have a responsibility to our players. And I also have a responsibility to the lettermen and to the fans and those types of things. So you’ve got to balance that. It was not an easy decision.”
The hiring of Parker, however, seems like it was a no-brainer. Franklin said Parker “crushed” his interview and noted that the assistant’s experience as Purdue’s interim head coach in 2016 adds “pretty good perspective” to the Penn State staff.
“It’s a guy that comes in and has a presence and has command of the room and a guy that obviously has the detailed and specific understanding of the fundamentals and the techniques that are going to allow our guys to be successful at the very highest level,” Franklin added. “On top of that, you’re talking about a guy that’s going to be able to build confidence. ... I’m looking at it as a great opportunity. I know he’s looking at it as a great opportunity. And we’ve got some talented guys that we’re excited to see what they’re going to be able to do this spring and going into the summer.”
Hamler headlines the 2019 Penn State wide receiver room; as a redshirt freshman, he led the team in receptions (42) and receiving yards (754) while becoming a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which recognizes college football’s most versatile player. Shorter, a former five-star recruit, showed flashes in four games while redshirting. Dotson caught first down after first down, as rising redshirt sophomores Mac Hippenhammer and Cam Sullivan-Brown and redshirt freshman Daniel George also saw the field.
Add 2019 signees John Dunmore and TJ Jones, whom Parker had a previous relationship with while recruiting him for Duke, and the new coach has piles of potential to work with.
It’s an inexperienced group, the youngest room Parker said he’s ever worked with. But the opportunity to mold promise into production is one Parker is prepared for. It’s the job he signed on to do.
“It is a challenge,” Parker said with a smile. “It’s a youthful room. ... But it’s also very gifted.”