Penn State's wide receivers blocking out the noise, focused on improvements


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Tyseer Denmark jogged around Holuba Hall playing catch with his newest Penn State teammates. The freshman wide receiver recently enrolled and like the rest of his classmates, he’s still trying to figure out his place on this team.

About 15 yards away from the newest Nittany Lion was senior wide receiver Julian Fleming. There isn’t much the Ohio State graduate transfer hasn’t seen at this point in his collegiate career. The scenery is new and by the looks and sounds of it Fleming, listed this spring at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, continues putting himself in position to be someone who can help elevate Drew Allar and this offense. Fleming is leaner since he arrived in January, strength coach Chuck Losey said. He’s remained healthy, too.

“I’m impressed with him,” Losey said Thursday ahead of the team’s annual Lift for Life event. “He’s a big-bodied guy. He didn’t time well when he first got here and that’s not a knock on him by any means because he is such a big body, but when you compare his initial baseline testing to the rest of our wideouts and the way they move at that position he was definitely a step slower. He’s closed the gap. … He’s in a really good spot right now.”

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Whether they’re new here, like Denmark, or are no stranger to playing Big Ten football, like Fleming, receivers coach Marques Hagans knows his group is well aware of what’s being said and written about it. He knows the Penn State receiving corps, without KeAndre Lambert-Smith who transferred to Auburn this spring, is once again under the microscope. This group can’t fall victim to criticism or praise, Hagans said. The same holds true for him.

“I’m more determined than ever. I get it,” Hagans said. “I don’t want to be associated with us being viewed as a group that doesn’t do well or perform well. No. We want to be the best and that’s what we’re gonna be.”

As Hagans spoke, several receivers were running around on the practice field behind him. There was redshirt junior Liam Clifford, whose emergence as a leader was noted by Losey. Fleming continues to set an example of how to train and prepare at this level. Harrison Wallace III, hoping to stay healthy this season just like Fleming, continues to look like the explosive playmaker the Nittany Lions were banking on last year, James Franklin said.

“He’s probably one of the most explosive guys we have in our program,” Franklin said. “I think you guys saw flashes of it at times. I think where some of the challenges were (last year) was just the chemistry with all the time he missed with the quarterbacks. That was lacking. Having him back and getting all this work this summer and this spring has been valuable.”

Hagans’ group also has the desire to be better. Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki, who was hired away from Kansas this winter, can only speak about what he’s observed since arriving. When he walks into his office he said there’s always at least one receiver watching film or catching footballs off the Jugs machine.

They’ve made it clear to him through actions that they want this year to be different.

“There’s a lot of competition,” Kotelnicki said. “And, there’s a lot of people who quite candidly want to prove a lot of people wrong. I love that they had that chip on their shoulder. I respect the hell out of it. I share that with them.”

Other takeaways from Penn State’s media session:

• Quarterback Drew Allar continues working with Losey and the strength staff on improving his body composition. That’s long been a point of emphasis for Allar and it’s certainly starting to become more noticeable. As Allar mingled with fans and signed autographs he looked more lean. Look to see Allar moving around more on the field. Making sure his body is up for it is part of what this offseason is about.

“Movement has always been an area (of improvement) for Drew that probably when you look at our history and the types of guys we’ve had back there, you know, Trace (McSorley) is in town right now. You think about Sean (Clifford’s) ability to move,” Losey said. “We’ve always had some really good movement guys back there.”

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• Franklin didn’t shy away from mentioning that the lack of explosive plays was problematic last year. He knows that can’t happen again and said Kotelnicki’s ability to use multiple personnel groupings, sets and tempos will help. Franklin also shed more light on something else that needs to change for the offense.

“What I’m adamant about that was challenging and problematic the last couple of years was the emphasis of getting the ball into your best player’s hands,” Franklin said. “You gotta be able to do that as a play caller and that was a big part of this interview process with Andy.”

• The hype surrounding freshman interior offensive lineman Cooper Cousins keeps building. Offensive line coach Phil Trautwein called Cousins “one of the best freshmen I’ve ever seen.” Between Nick Dawkins, Cousins and Vega Ioane, the competition for the starting center job will come into focus during camp. Having a true freshman in that starting conversation is notable.

• Offensive tackle Drew Shelton, who likely slots in as the starting left tackle, is back to full health after missing spring ball. Between Shelton, Wisconsin transfer Nolan Rucci, redshirt freshman J’ven Williams and redshirt freshman Anthony Donkoh, there will be quite a few pairings for Trautwein to work with. Donkoh’s transition from not playing right tackle to playing the second half and doing so well in the Peach Bowl makes him a player to keep an eye on during camp.

Williams played well enough in spring practices that Franklin said the redshirt freshman should also get playing time.

“We’d like to be able to get him some legitimate reps as long as things sit the way they are now,” Franklin said. “It could become more competitive during training camp and become more of a split (with Shelton), but J’ven’s done enough that we need to get him some experience as well.”

• Kotelnicki said the offense will do whatever it needs to get the best 11 players on the field. He was immediately asked if No. 2 quarterback/versatile athlete Beau Pribula was one of the best players.

“Beau is one of our best players,” Kotelnicki said. “Beau does a great job. … He’s super athletic. He’s fast. He’s powerful. Explosive. All the metrics physically that you would look for in college football.”

• It was hard not to notice how much bigger linebacker Tony Rojas looked. While Losey wouldn’t put a number on Rojas’ weight, he was quick to say he’s “ahead of the curve” both from a developmental and a body transformation perspective.

While the physical gains are one part, what Losey sees behind the scenes is Rojas being one of the leaders on this defense. Penn State has yet to name any captains — something that Franklin said they won’t do until it’s obvious who those guys are. While they need this to become a player-led team, it certainly sounds like Rojas is stepping into a bigger, more vocal role during workouts.

“He’s a voice of reason, like an authoritative voice on the defense and I love that,” Losey said. “When you come out and watch our training sessions you hear Tony. You feel Tony. The impact he has mentally and emotionally as a catalyst to the other guys around him that’s starting to match his trend physically.”

(Photo: Dan Rainville / USA Today)





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