Chris Godwin’s planned departure for the NFL is, on the surface, a big loss for Penn State. He was the Nittany Lions’ leading receiver the past two seasons, and he had a massive game in the Rose Bowl, racking up 187 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions. That total included a breathtaking 72-yard score early in the third quarter that helped fuel a furious Penn State rally with seven consecutive touchdown drives.
Dig just a little bit deeper, though, and it’s clear coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense is well prepared to deal with the Godwin loss.
Last season under former coordinator John Donovan, Godwin had 69 receptions for 1,101 yards. This year under Moorhead, those totals dipped to 59 and 982, respectively.
This is not a case of a receiver regressing. Rather, other members or Penn State’s receiving corps stepped up to be dangerous pieces of the puzzle.
DeAndre Thompkins chipped in 27 catches and almost 450 yards, while Saeed Blacknall contributed 15 catches and 347 yards despite missing five games with an injury. Tight end Mike Gesicki and running back Saquon Barkley siphoned off receptions, too, both making much bigger contributions to the passing game under Moorhead than Donovan.
All those guys will be back next season, so it’s not difficult to understand why a receiver with pro aspirations would want to move on from that kind of logjam, nor is it hard to fathom how the offense Godwin leaves behind could be optimistic about its future without him.
Blacknall appears to be a good candidate for a breakout season despite being suspended for the Rose Bowl for violating team rules. Though he contributed one or fewer receptions in five of his eight games, he made them count, turning three of them into gains of 35, 42 and 43 yards. And he came up huge in the Big Ten championship win against Wisconsin, making six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-breaking 70-yard score in the third quarter.
There’s reason to be optimistic about Thompkins, too. He had a more consistent season, chipping in at least three receptions in six games. And while he, too, showed off his big-play ability with long gains in several games, he also made contributions in Penn State’s short and intermediate passing game, proving he can be the safety valve Godwin was so often for McSorley, and Christian Hackenberg before him.
Godwin’s departure opens space for some underclassmen to make some contributions as well.
Freshmen Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson top the list of guys who figure to benefit most. Both are physically imposing, with 6-foot-4 frames at around 220 pounds. And both saw the field — if not the ball — a fair amount in 2016. Charles made the loudest contribution, a critical 80-yard score in Penn State’s comeback win Oct. 1 against Minnesota.
Then there are the Class of 2017 members who will be looking to contribute. K.J. Hamler — a Bradenton, Fla. product rated a 4-star prospect — is the biggest name in the receiving group that also includes Fort Wayne, Ind.’s Mac Hippenhammer and Laurel, Md.’s Cameron Sullivan-Brown, both 3-star prospects in Rivals’ book.
Bottom line? McSorley won’t be lacking options without Godwin.
Yes, he was the best of the bunch the past two seasons, and yes, Blacknall and Thompkins especially are going to have to step up for Penn State to remain as dangerous offensively as it was in 2016.
But Moorhead has more depth to work with here than Penn State has at any position on either side of the ball. For a play-caller who likes to get the ball downfield, that has to be a reassuring situation.