Penn State wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins are on pace to record 42 and 36 receptions this season, respectively, assuming the Nittany Lions make a bowl game.
Although those are respectable totals for Nos. 2 and 3 receivers on the depth chart – both would eclipse the Nittany Lions’ second-leading receivers in 2011-13 – the problem is there is little behind the pair.
Chris Godwin is leading the team with 23 receptions, and tight end Mike Gesicki has 19. But the cupboard is bare after that; only running back Saquon Barkley with 11 catches is on pace for more than four this season. Freshmen Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson and sophomore Brandon Polk have four receptions between them, including Charles’ 80-yard touchdown last week against Minnesota.
That puts Penn State (3-2, 1-1 in the Big Ten) on pace to have its fewest double-digit pass catchers since 2002, when it had five and was led offensively by running back Larry Johnson’s 2,000-yard season.
So if Thompkins, who has 14 catches, and Hamilton, who has 16, have another gear, now is the time to find it.
Hamilton has done more in the past. He racked up 82 catches as a freshman in 2014 and 45 last season, bumping his yards per catch up to a career-high 12.9. And sophomore Thompkins is one of the higher-rated prospects Penn State has had in a while, a 4-star recruit when he came out of high school in Swansboro, N.C. It’s reasonable to hope for one of them to step up and seize the No. 2 receiver slot.
Penn State’s top targets desperately need someone to draw some attention away from them. Godwin isn’t taking anyone by surprise this season after piling up 1,101 yards on 69 receptions in 2015. That has led to tighter coverage and a dip in production.
The running game has also been impacted. Barkley is averaging just 4.4. yards per carry despite possessing the tremendous athleticism, in part because teams aren’t respecting the passing attack, and in part because the blocking, though improved, has not been great.
Quarterback Trace McSorley does shoulder some of the responsibility, despite a solid 58.9 percent completion percentage, because there are have been high throws and missed deep balls. But it’s hard to hang too much of the responsibility on a guy who’s on pace to break Penn State’s single-season record for passing yardage.
At some point, Hamilton and Thompkins need to make teams pay for loading up on the line of scrimmage or focusing on Godwin. That doesn’t mean going off for 10 catches and/or 100 yards every week. Such consistency is the stuff of No. 1 receivers, and it’s clear neither guy is going to get to that level this season, especially considering this is their first in the run-pass option system of first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
If they could each turn in a couple such efforts, that should open up plays elsewhere on the field and boost Penn State’s offensive rank into the top half of college football and maintain a healthy scoring clip through the heart of Big Ten play (Penn State is ranked 71 in points per game). Junior Saeed Blacknall’s expected return from an injury this week against Maryland also could help the cause.
Without additional production from the depth of the roster, Hamilton and Thompkins — or perhaps even Blacknall, if he is 100 percent — are best positioned to change the dynamic of the first five games.
Let’s see who can seize the opportunity.