PSU wide receiver stronger and confident, ready to dominate
Give Penn State wide receiver Justin Shorter three wishes and he would use one to repeat the success of his high school career — just at the collegiate level this time.
The redshirt freshman, a consensus five-star prospect out of South Brunswick (N.J.), dominated the high school ranks. He was an All-USA second-team All-American as a senior, and he frustrated opposing defenses with his hands, speed and athleticism.
His journey at Penn State is beginning to take on a similar path.
Two or three games into his junior-high football career, he suffered a broken ankle. “He had a long way to go,” former high school coach Joe Goerge said. But he persevered and quickly showed just how dynamic he was. His first act in Happy Valley is not drastically different.
Shorter dislocated his kneecap before last season began, Goerge said, but he’s again showing why he was one of the nation’s top-10 recruits. Teammates have lauded his big-play ability and the way he uses his 6-foot-4 frame. And when asked recently if he could be on that same high school path, Shorter didn’t hesitate.
“I hope so. That would be great,” Shorter said during Penn State media day last week. “My sophomore year of high school, I definitely worked super hard during the offseason with my dad and the quarterback. Then, that year, I really blew up on the stage, so I’m really hoping the same thing happens, but you never know.
“I’ve just gotta keep working hard, just keep myself focused, so I can dominate at this level.”
Besides health — Shorter said he feels “so much stronger and faster” this year — his often-predicted breakout boils down to opportunity and expectations.
Only three of Penn State’s top-eight pass-catchers from last season return: K.J. Hamler, Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth. And coach James Franklin once said Shorter, who caught just three balls during last season’s injury-defined campaign, was “as good a high school receiver that I’ve ever seen.”
Shorter is not afraid to place expectations on himself either. Among the objectives on his to-do list are Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the Biletnikoff Award, a Big Ten championship and a national championship.
If anything, the concern is Shorter is putting too much pressure on himself. And that’s something first-year wide receivers coach Gerad Parker wants to remove.
“He needs to remove all his anxiety and let me carry that. That’s my job,” Parker said. “He just needs to be a young, fun kid who’s gifted and goes out and has fun and plays. If Justin Shorter does that, and the entire room does that, everybody, including us, is going to be happy with the result.”
Junior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields has seen first-hand what happens when Shorter is relaxed and playing his game. He praised Shorter’s potential, saying his size and speed create a mismatch waiting to happen.
“He’s a great receiver. I think he’s coming along really well,” Castro-Fields said. “He’s just a big guy and, for a lot corners, it’s just a lot to handle with his speed and his quickness for a big guy. I think he’s going to be a real threat in the Big Ten.”
Shorter immersed himself in Penn State’s run-pass offense after coming from a triple-option offense in high school, which Goerge conceded is not a hotbed for receivers.
At South Brunswick, Shorter’s primary role on offense was as a deep threat. At Penn State, the offense is based on options and reads, which Shorter said he feels more comfortable with in year No. 2.
“They definitely pass it a lot more. They have more options with routes and stuff like that,” Shorter said, referring to Penn State. “I’m just grateful that God gave me the chance to come here. Franklin trusted in me to come here, so hopefully this year I can come out and dominate and tear the whole world apart.”
But, as Franklin said in April, Shorter’s next challenge is to refine his route running, blocking and play “as big as he is.”
And what happens as he comes to terms with that? “You’ll see him unlock little keys to his game that are going to be vital to him being great,” Parker said.
Maybe even greater than he was in high school.