Coming into this season, there weren’t many worrisome areas for Penn State.
It could be argued that the interior defensive line was one of them after losing P.J Mustipher this offseason.
Coach James Franklin himself stated on Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis this past July that the secondary was the “one question mark” on defense after the losses of now-Steeler Joey Porter Jr. and now-49er Ji’Ayir Brown.
There was also the fact that Penn State needed to replace placekicker Jake Pinegar and punter Barney Amor. Those concerns were validated during Saturday’s win over West Virginia, as Sander Sahaydak missed two first-half field goals.
Then, there are the receivers, and for many Penn State fans, this was the biggest area of concern coming into 2023.
Many fans asked if a lack of firepower at that position could hold new QB Drew Allar back.
Penn State came into this year having to account for the losses of its two top receivers from 2022. PSU lost Now-Jaguar Parker Washington (46 catches, 611 yards, two TDs last season) and now-Washington Commander Mitchell Tinsley (51 catches, 577 yards, five TDs.) New WR coach Marques Hagans has plenty of talented, but few proven, options.
KeAndre Lambert-Smith showed what he could do in the Rose Bowl last season. KLS caught the longest TD pass in the game’s history. Yet, it would have been fair to question how Lambert-Smith would handle being Penn State’s top guy. He had never been more than a No. 3 receiver for a full season.
If this year’s opener against West Virginia was any indication, Lambert-Smith’s Rose Bowl performance was a preview, not a fluke.
Lambert-Smith caught four passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. This included a 72-yard score on Penn State’s fourth offensive play.
Drew Allar era has BEGUN pic.twitter.com/Jz18V9Ui2i
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) September 2, 2023
So it looks like Penn State has a capable No. 1 receiver.
But what about the rest of the guys?
Harrison “Trey” Wallace started Penn State’s last three games of 2022, including the Rose Bowl, receiving a promotion after Washington went down with a season ending injury.
Although Wallace impressed the coaching staff enough in practice to quietly move up the depth chart, his stats in those three starts amounted to six catches for 100 yards and no scores.
Sure, Wallace had some encouraging moments in those three games, such as a 27-yard catch in the Rose Bowl, but it’s hard to argue that he asserted himself as 2022’s No. 2 receiver in that stretch.
What he did against West Virginia was more assertive. Wallace caught seven passes— one more than he did in his three starts combined last season— for 72 yards, setting career highs in both.
So if Saturday night was any indication, Penn State has a solid 1-2 punch.
But does the team have receiver depth?
Malik McClain didn’t get a chance to do much of anything at Florida State. If he had, he probably wouldn’t be at Penn State. Over two seasons in Tallahassee, McClain’s career high in single-game receiving yards was 51.
He had 58 against West Virginia. This included his first Penn State touchdown, which puts the team in a win-win situation.
McClain wasn’t expected to start in 2023, and a big reason for that was the fact that he wasn’t the only receiver Penn State added out of the transfer portal.
Dante Cephas came over after four seasons at Kent State, highlighted by a 1,240-yard campaign in 2018.
For months, people assumed that Cephas would be one of Penn State’s starters, if not the No. 1 guy.
But over fall camp, the hype for Cephas died down, and it became apparent that he wouldn’t be one of Penn State’s top two options Week 1.
Even with that development, a few eyebrows in Beaver Stadium went up Saturday when Liam Clifford was announced as Penn State’s starter, not Cephas. Cephas ended up having a quiet night, catching just one pass— albeit a 22 yarder— and negating that with a goal line drop on the following play. Penn State fans would love it if Cephas can ball out, but the fact that the receivers room had a great night despite Cephas not contributing much is all kinds of encouraging.
And why don’t we talk about Liam Clifford?
The third-year receiver probably isn’t going to be the next Jerry Rice and, for that matter, probably won’t end up being the most famous Clifford to play for Penn State.
But it might be time for us to think of him as a little more than “Sean Clifford’s little brother.”
Liam Clifford only had two catches Saturday, but both of them went for first downs and one of them was a 17-yarder.
Penn State has other talented receivers who didn’t catch a pass, such as Blue-White Game hero Omari Evans and 2022 blue-chipper Kaden Saunders.
It’s also worth noting that only one of Allar’s 21 completions went to a tight end, and Penn State could have one of America’s best tight end rooms.
Penn State fans have been spoiled over the years by watching players receivers such as Jahan Dotson, Chris Godwin and Saturday’s honorary captain, Allen Robinson, and this receivers group might not have anybody at that level.
But if Week 1 is a sign of what’s to come, Penn State’s receivers room has balance, and Drew Allar has weapons.
Those are dangerous words for the rest of the Big Ten.