Dotson watching himself and greats to get better
With the 2019 Penn State football season — finally — just a week away, we decided to take our predictions beyond the usual season record.
Who’s going to set a new school record? What unlikely player will lead the team in receptions? Who’s going to surprise? We polled four members of our staff, who’ll be making game predictions every week of the season, to see what their “fearless predictions” were.
Here’s what they said:
Josh Moyer: Penn State will have at least three All-Americans, its highest total in a decade
Since arriving here in 2014, James Franklin has produced four total All-Americans: LB Mike Hull (2014), DE Carl Nassib (2015), RB Saquon Barkley (2016, 2017) and TE Mike Gesicki (2017). Franklin has done a great job recruiting, his staff has done an admirable job developing, and I predict that we see that come to fruition in 2019 when it comes to individual standouts.
LB Micah Parsons is poised to break out after leading the team in tackles last season in spite of, one, technically starting only one game and, two, never before playing the position of linebacker. DE Yetur Gross-Matos has established himself as one of the Big Ten’s most-feared pass-rushers. And both TE Pat Freiermuth and WR/KR/PR KJ Hamler have All-America potential; one of those two should make the team.
So maybe four players become All-Americans. But I’m playing it “safe” by going with at least three, with two on defense.
Jon Sauber: True sophomore WR Jahan Dotson will lead Penn State in receptions
Jahan Dotson stepped up in 2018, forcing the Penn State coaching staff to burn his redshirt during his first year on campus. The true sophomore finished his first season with 13 receptions for 203 yards. He’s a precise route runner with excellent hands and excels in the slot. That last part will be vital to his breakout in 2019, because redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler should see more time on the outside this season. With Hamler on the outside, Dotson should see plenty of snaps in the slot, where he can excel as a chain-mover and reliable option for expected first-year starter Sean Clifford.
Dotson may not finish the season as the team’s leader in receiving yards, but his effectiveness in the middle of the field should allow him to rack up receptions and build trust with Clifford. Hamler will see more attention this season after a successful 2018, especially down the field. With a focus on defending Hamler over the top, the middle of the field should be open for Dotson to operate in, giving him a great chance to lead Penn State in receptions.
Lauren Muthler: Micah Parsons will return a kickoff for a touchdown
Although the coaches have indicated LB Micah Parsons will fill in at the No. 2 position, primarily blocking for WR KJ Hamler, in his new expanded role on the kickoff return team, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound sophomore isn’t one to let an opportunity pass him by.
The Harrisburg product has reportedly been a bit aggressive in offseason practice, fielding kickoffs in front of Hamler, who was third in the Big Ten last season on kickoff returns with an average of 26.2 yards. However, his coaches haven’t seemed too concerned.
“The problem with Micah in the past at kickoff return is, he’s not used to being the No. 2,” head coach James Franklin told reporters at Big Ten media days. “He’s the No. 2, so if the ball is kicked extremely to the right, it makes sense for him to take it, and now the returner becomes the blocker.”
Parsons, who boasts a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, caught the eye of special teams coordinator Joe Lorig in the spring, and was more than happy for the chance to contribute to his team in more areas. Unlike his transition from primarily playing defensive end in high school to linebacker last year, Parsons already has experience in the kickoff return game, running back a couple kickoffs for touchdowns his senior year at Harrisburg High.
Having gone from never before playing linebacker to leading the team in tackles as a true freshman, there’s no reason not to expect big things out of Parsons as his role expands in his sophomore campaign.
At some point this season, the ball will fall into Parsons’ hands. And when it does, the former high school running back will take one to the house.
Bret Pallotto: KJ Hamler will break Penn State’s single-season all-purpose yardage record
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver KJ Hamler led the Nittany Lions in all-purpose yards (1,417) last season. That placed him No. 18 on the program’s all-time single-season all-purpose yardage list — and was 180 yards more than Saquon Barkley recorded in his freshman season.
Barkley eventually claimed the No. 2 (2,329 yards) and No. 3 (1,972 yards) spots on the all-time list. He trailed Larry Johnson, who racked up 2,655 all-purpose yards in 2002.
So, yes, for Hamler to break Johnson’s record that has stood for 16 seasons, he will have to nearly double his own output. But I think he’ll do it.
The 5-foot-9, 176 pound wideout is one of the few known commodities on Penn State’s offense this season. Only three of Nittany Lions’ top-eight pass-catchers return — Hamler, Jahan Dotson and tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Combine need with talent and Hamler should be able to top the 754 receiving yards he had last season. He also rushed for 44 yards on four carries. If we assume offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will look for more ways to get the ball into Hamler’s hands this season, he should top that mark as well.
That brings us to return yards. Hamler was the team’s leading kickoff returner but split punt returning duties with DeAndre Thompkins, who has since graduated. So — you probably guessed it at this point — Hamler could have more opportunities to top his 619 return yards last season.