With the start of the season being less than 100 days away, Penn State football is working to keep itself near the top of the Big Ten. The loss of the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Saquon Barkley is huge, but the Nittany Lions have the backfield depth to soften the blow.
Trace McSorley returns to lead the Penn State offense and his performance against Washington in the Fiesta Bowl has given him preseason Heisman buzz. The redshirt senior from Ashburn, Virginia is capable of picking apart defenses with his arm, but needs help from his receiver group.
The loss of DaeSean Hamilton, the program’s all-time leader in receptions, and Mike Gesicki creates two large holes in the Penn State passing attack. The duo combined for 99 receptions, 1,248 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and their production will be missed.
Juwan Johnson returns to take over the number one role and could be a potential first round pick if he plays well throughout the season. The position on the opposite side is up for grabs with multiple experienced players gunning for the starting role with DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk being the frontrunners for the job.
While the duo is the most experienced, freshman Justin Shorter is the most talented and can contribute right away. The New Jersey native would give Penn State a pair of six-foot-four receivers for McSorley to throw to, and Shorter is faster than Johnson.
The pure combination of size and speed should give Shorter a spot in rotation, but might not start against Appalachian State due to his inexperience. He could work in the slot, but the play of redshirt freshman KJ Hamler in the spring will relegate Shorter to the number five role at the onset.
Once the opener is over, the freshman will continue his ascent to the starting lineup as players with his kind of talent do not stay on the bench for very long. Shorter will work his way quickly up the depth chart and will see major time against Ohio State on Sept. 29, barring any major injury.
To say that he will be a starting wide receiver within five games of his college career is a little crazy, but Shorter has the talent and athleticism to do just that. In fact, he will be a starter a week before the Ohio State game when the Nittany Lions travel to Champaign to take on Illinois.
Thompkins, Polk, Hamler and Johnson are all good options in the passing game for McSorley, but Shorter is the most talented out of the bunch and could stake his claim as the top freshman in the conference. Micah Parsons and Ricky Slade may have come to Penn State with more hype, but Shorter will have the best freshman season of the heralded trio.