Blue White Illustrated

March 2024

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 54 of 75

M A R C H 2 0 2 4 5 5 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M T he winter months can be a long and lonely time for college football fans, especially if their team ends the year with a loss. That's the case this year for Penn State fans, who saw the Nittany Lions fall to Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl in December. But with the late-winter doldrums set to give way to spring — and with it, spring practice — there's a feeling of excitement in the air again. Even at the positions where the Nittany Lions struggled last season, signs of opti- mism are evident. Maybe that's because spring is an inherently hopeful season, but it's also because the Lions made moves in recent months to address their most pressing needs. Nowhere have those needs been more immediate than at wide receiver. The Lions simply didn't get the widespread productivity they needed from this group in 2023. As a junior, KeAndre Lambert-Smith singlehandedly ac- counted for 42.5 percent of the catches by wideouts. Lambert-Smith was targeted 85 times last season, more than double the next- closest wide receiver. That wideout, the since departed Dante Cephas, saw 2 or fewer targets in six of the first seven games. This season, Penn State's receivers room already feels more stable with the addition of Ohio State transfer Julian Fleming. Not only is Fleming an expe- rienced senior, he's a proven performer at the Big Ten level and comes to Penn State with a known work ethic and a solid set of skills. Fleming saw at least 3 targets in nine games with the Buckeyes last season. In 2022, he saw that number of targets in every game. While we have yet to deter- mine what is in store for 2024, the team should have a better threat balance just with Fleming on the field. One of the biggest issues for Penn State last season was that Lambert- Smith was filling multiple roles for the team. He led the unit with 14 deep tar- gets, and no other player had more than 4. Yet, he also saw most of his targets (50) under 10 yards. The latter stat was symptomatic of a broader problem for the offense. Last season, 54.7 percent of the team's pass- ing targets to receivers were 10 yards or under. By comparison, Kansas had a much more open and aggressive passing attack. In what would turn out to be his final season with the Jayhawks before becom- ing Penn State's new offensive coordina- tor in December, Andy Kotelnicki found a way to get the receivers the ball down- field into the medium and deep areas more often. Only 37.6 percent of Kansas' wide receiver targets were under 10 yards. Kotelnicki achieved this percent- age despite playing three quarterbacks and having triple-option elements in the team's offense. Penn State's current receivers have the speed and athleticism to make big plays. The key is getting them more valuable targets by opening up more first-read options for the quarterback downfield. Lambert-Smith was effective in these areas last season. According to Pro Foot- ball Focus, he caught 11 passes for 227 yards on throws 10-19 yards downfield. Those 227 yards ranked 11th among Big Ten wide receivers last season. Certainly, variables outside of receiver skill play into this next part, but Kansas did an excellent job with the deep ball last season. Big 12 defenses are different than their Big Ten counterparts, but the Jayhawks' efficiency was impressive last season. If you stack the Kansas receivers up against Penn State's, the Jayhawks take four of the top five spots for deep receiving yards. Does the quarterback play into this? Yes. But that doesn't explain the massive gulf in efficiency between the two teams. Which brings us back to Fleming and Lambert-Smith. These two are the only players with enough targets and data to make reasonable projections about their potential in Kotelnicki's offense. Last season, Lambert-Smith had to be the team's primary slot and Z receiver. It's a reasonable assumption that Fleming can relieve Lambert-Smith of the burden of playing outside for most of the team's snaps. Kotelnicki found a way to be explosive out of the slot at Kansas. The Jayhawks gained 961 yards throwing to slot receiv- ers, compared to Penn State's 536. More important, they did so on virtually the same number of targets. Kansas quarter- backs targeted slot receivers 14.8 yards downfield in 2023, compared to a paltry 9.0 for Penn State. Lambert-Smith is a dynamic athlete who can stretch defenses with speed and elusiveness. Not only can he play more snaps in the slot next season, but he can be more effective if Kotelnicki can repli- cate his success in 2024. From both a schematic and personnel standpoint, Penn State is in a much bet- ter position heading into the 2024 season than it was last year. ■ O P I N I O N THOMAS FRANK CARR T F R A N K .CA R R @ O N 3 .C O M KeAndre Lambert-Smith was Penn State's leading receiver by a wide margin last season. As a junior, he caught 53 passes for 673 yards and 4 touchdowns. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL Lions' Wideout Corps Has Higher Ceiling In 2024 Upon Further Review

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