Penn State Blue-White Game Preview: Receivers, Tight Ends
After losing three of the most prolific receivers in school history, how will Penn State reload at that position, and which players are looking to step up in this weekend's Blue White Game?
There is also the battle over tight end, as starter Mickey Shuler and former starter Andrew Quarless go at it.
In this edition: Wide receivers and tight ends.
This is a bit tricky compared to positions like quarterback and running back. Penn State really likes to rotate a lot of receivers in and out of the game, and now with three four-year starters gone, the rotation could expand even more.
So, instead of using the term "starter" for the top players, I'll use "possible starter." That phrase better indicates just how wide open this position is, even after spring practice finishes this weekend.
I will still use "backup" to refer to the guys who could contribute, but won't be the main rotation of receivers.
No. 5, Graham Zug: Redshirt Junior, Possible Starter
What we already know: Zug became somewhat of a cult hero among Penn State fans in 2008. He was seventh on the team in receptions (11 for 174 yds, TD), and never topped two catches in a game (Purdue and Michigan St.).
But he was good for two clutch plays in two of Penn State's most important games last year—a 49-yard grab at Ohio State and the Lions' first touchdown against Michigan State.
Zug won't be a burner like Deon Butler, or as slippery as Jordan Norwood, but he has good hands and a knack for finding the open spaces.
What to expect: It will be interesting to see how much Clark goes to Zug, and what kind of routes the coaches are working on for him this season. I will be looking for plenty of shorter routes, particularly when beginning and ending drives.
Zug can emerge as a great possession guy, but that means gaining yards beyond the first down marker. Three completions for nine yards doesn't move the sticks, so I'm hopeful we'll see some throws to Zug this weekend that are in the 12-15 yards range.
Hooks and comebacks are pretty routine in the longer drives, but I want to see some slants to Zug inside the opponent's 30.
No. 6, Derek Moye: Redshirt Sophomore, Possible Starter
What we already know: Moye has probably the most upside of any returning receiver. He's big (6'5") and can move really well, but other than practice reports here and there this spring, we don't have much to go off of in terms of production.
He was the team's eleventh receiver in receptions, with a mere three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown, 33 of those yards coming in a catch-and-run score at Syracuse. However, the reports have been positive, if not glowing, about the job Moye is doing this spring.
What to expect: Right now, Moye is the team's best prospect to take over as leading receiver. He can really show off what he's learned this weekend, and he'll be my main focus when watching the receivers.
I really want to see Moye take over the passing game, and scare the crap out of the secondary every time he lines up. If the coaches use him correctly this weekend, we might just see Moye streaking to the end zone on deep post patterns.
I don't exactly see him as the red-zone threat others might, but he should most certainly be used when the situation comes up.
No. 83, Brett Bracket: Redshirt Junior, Possible Starter
What we already know: The former quarterback was supposed to be more tight end than wide receiver, but Brackett seemed to enjoy doing a little bit of everything last year. He was sixth on the team in catches (13 for 160, TD), ahead of both tight ends Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.
Brackett was fantastic over the middle, highlighted by his 20-yard grab in heavy traffic at Wisconsin, and equally good at run blocking the entire season. The coaches loved him in motion last year. Brackett put up a solid game in the Rose Bowl.
What to expect: If there's one thing Penn State has lacked offensively, it's a big, tall red-zone receiver; a guy who can go up above the entire defense and pull down that five-yard lob to the corner pylon. I want to see that on Saturday.
Brackett can solidify his role as a part-time starter on this team by reeling in those tough in-traffic catches, like he's already shown he can do. The coaches should really make an effort to get him the ball in those situations, where his natural abilities can be maximized.
No. 8, James McDonald: Redshirt Senior, Possible Starter
What we already know: McDonald is the last of the 2005 recruiting class, and coming out of high school was actually higher rated than guys like Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler.
He was able to get enough time on the field last year to gain 72 yards on five catches. His best catch was a 25-yarder against Wisconsin.
McDonald has good size at 6'2" and 205 lbs., and has very good speed. He just hasn't been able to crack through—like many other receivers since the arrival of Butler, Norwood, and Derrick Williams.
What to expect: I listed McDonald as a possible starter because I really think he has the means and tools to make the starting rotation, or at least be one of the first subs into the games. We could see him running between the first and second teams this weekend, as either a flanker or split end.
He will need to display good ball-handling skills if he wants to play more this fall. Catching everything that comes his way is the absolute mission for McDonald on Saturday.
No. 2, Chaz Powell: Redshirt Sophomore, Possible Starter
What we already know: He used to be a safety, and a good one at that, but Powell has really taken to his new role as Derrick Williams-lite. We saw glimpses of it last year, with a few end-around plays and kickoff returns. His two biggest plays were a 55-yard touchdown run against Coastal Carolina, and a 69-yard kick return against Syracuse.
Powell actually bested Williams in per-kickoff return average, 28.8 to 25.8, although Williams brought two back for scores. Powell finished sixth on the team in all purpose yardage. After sustaining an ankle injury last week, his status for the Blue White Game remains unclear.
What to expect: We are usually treated to some sort of fireworks during the Blue White Game. If we see any this year, it's safe to be Powell will light the fuse. Some of the spring practice reports have described "new elements" in this year's offense. We can only hope to see the trailer this weekend.
Powell has already proven he has the straight-line speed to outrun defenders, but I really look forward to seeing his agility in action. Also, if he's going to become more than just a running and return threat, he has to improve his receiving skills. That could come in time, but Saturday would be a good start.
No. 20, Devin Fentress: Redshirt Senior, Backup
What we already know: Fentress was another speedster in the 2005 recruiting class, who has played sparingly all four years he's been at Penn State. He redshirted in 2006, and shuffled around between corner and receiver ever since. He ran track as a sprinter for Penn State in 2007.
He didn't accumulate any stats last year, despite playing in six games.
What to expect: With several dyamite freshmen coming in the fall, I seriously (and unfortunately) doubt that Fentress will have much of a chance to become a regular rotation receiver. However, this weekend he can help his case for meaningful playing time.
His development can only help the team depth, especially after losing three possible NFL receivers.
No. 84, Patrick Mauti: Redshirt Senior, Backup
What we already know: Mauti appeared in four games, logging one catch against Michigan State for four yards. He is Mike Mauti's older brother. Like Fentress, Mauti has played sparingly over the last four years, appearing in at least one game each eligible season at Penn State. Mauti was used primarily in mop-up duty, but played well enough.
What to expect: Mauti should be able to retain his role this season, provided he had a good spring practice. All accounts so far have been that he will be just fine resuming where he left off in 2008. Being seniors, this final Blue White Game will have a little more meaning to guys like Mauti and Fentress.
No. 14, AJ Price: Redshirt Freshman, Backup
What we already know: A NOVA (Northern Virginia) product, Price has been described as anything between a stick and a rail. Yeah, he's thin. However, he's really tall at 6'4" and has decent speed for the height. He redshirted last year.
What to expect: Price could creep up the depth chart if he can maintain his speed while adding a few more pounds. His height gives him a leg up on some of the other competition, along with a year of experience in the program.
It could be very interesting to see how he holds up this weekend in a live-game format. Price could be sent on longer routes, where he can get into a longer gait, like on posts and flags. Keep an eye on his hands.
Others to note: No. 26, JD Mason, RS Fr.; No. 81, Ryan Scherer, RS Fr.; No. 49, Larry Ryland, RS Fr.
What we already know: No attention has been given to these guys so far. Mason has appeared here and there in the media coverage, but nothing worth mentioning at this point.
What to expect: Somewhere in here we might have our next Aric Heffelfinger. They'll get their moment in the sun this weekend. Keep an eye on Mason, though.
No. 82, Mickey Shuler: Redshirt Senior, Starter
What we already know: Shuler emerged as a result of fellow tight end Andrew Quarless' penchant for Joe Paterno's dog house. It's been a very pleasant surprise, though, as Shuler has displayed a good all-around skill set for his position. He started six games last season, and participated in all 13.
Shuler's dad played tight end for Penn State in the late 1970s, and went on to a very successful NFL career.
Shuler pulled in nine catches for 120 yards and a touchdown last season, with a long of 24 coming at Iowa. However, he had a nagging ankle injury most of the year. He's great on crossing patterns.
What to expect: Penn State usually figures out how to use a good tight end by the time that guy's a senior. Shuler might be that guy. He was greatly underutilized last year, partly due to the excellent receivers on the outside.
As the only sure-fire starter in today's preview, I don't really need to watch for much this weekend. It would be nice to see him go on a couple seam routes.
No. 10, Andrew Quarless: Senior, Possible Starter
What we already know: We know too much about Quarless. He came to Penn State in 2006 and wowed the crowds with his freakish natural talent at tight end. However, Quarless just couldn't keep his head screwed on straight the last three seasons, and his playing time was taken away.
Still, last season saw him calm down a bit, and ended up with 11 catches—better than Shuler—for 117 yards and a touchdown, a big one against Illinois. He made one start last year, at Ohio State. His size and speed will guarantee him a spot on an NFL roster—maybe more, if he continues to mature mentally.
What to expect: I want to see Quarless finally live up to his potential. This is not a knock on Shuler, who I really like and want to see do well. I just have been waiting (along with most Penn State fans) to see Quarless break out and stop shooting himself in the foot.
The reports from spring practice have said he's "turned the corner," but I'm not exactly holding my breath. This weekend he should come out hungry and with a great attitude. The only way you can succeed at Penn State is by earning the respect and good will of the rest of the team, and a good showing Saturday will help Quarless' cause.
No. 80, Andrew Szczerba: Redshirt Sophomore, Backup
What we already know: He was last year's Aric Heffelfinger. Szczerba (pronounced: 'Zerba') made five catches for 65 yards, all in the first half of the 2008 Blue White Game. He has great size, and good enough hands to earn him the top reserve spot this spring.
What to expect: If he puts on another show like last year, we'll see a bigger base of support from the fans. He should be concerned with developing his catch-and-run skills that earned him the recognition in 2008, along with adding some aggressiveness to his play.
Others to note: No. 88, John Ditto, RS So.; No. 81, Brennan Coakley, Sr.; No. 13, Mark Wedderburn, RS Fr.; No. 87, Gino Raneri, Fr.
What we already know: Ditto has been somewhat injury plagued since he arrived at Penn State, but looks to be ready to roll this year. His progress this spring has been noted, but not raved about. Coakley and Wedderburn have also been subjects of some discussion, but nothing of a serious threat to take the starting job, yet.
What to expect: Ditto and Wedderburn seem to have the edge when it comes to breaking into the second string. I'm very curious to see how Ditto plays this weekend, particularly since he can also double as a wide receiver, in the style of Brett Brackett.
• • •
Monday: Quarterbacks and Running Backs
Wednesday: Offensive and Defensive Lines.
Thursday: Linebackers and Defensive Backs.
Friday: Special Teams. Last minute updates.
Saturday night: Report from the game, photos, etc.
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