STATE COLLEGE — When lingering high school injuries cost him his first college football season, DaeSean Hamilton turned to the Penn State record book for motivation during his recovery.
Nearly five years later, Hamilton’s name is nearing the tops of those pages.
He enters No. 6 Penn State’s season opener against Akron just 18 catches and just over 1,000 yards away from being the school’s career leader in both categories. He’s also the de facto leader of a deep receiver corps that’s usually overlooked compared to Heisman Trophy candidates quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
“We’ve got about six guys that I honestly can say are going on to play in the NFL at a very high level,” Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis said. “And I don’t throw that tag out there lightly.”
Former star Chris Godwin is now doing just that and left his workload — 58 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns — to be picked up by Hamilton and others. But while Hamilton’s numbers have fallen off each year since he made a program record 82 catches as a redshirt freshman, his contributions elsewhere haven’t waned. For years Hamilton has used his short-area quickness from the slot to draw defenders to him and open up space for his teammates.
“His production hasn’t changed,” Gattis said. “We grade the film and he’s playing at a very, very high level. There’s just other guys for the ball to go around.”
Saeed Blacknall and DeAndre Thompkins are back and they both want the ball too. Both made big plays last season and both have extra motivation this year. Blackall was suspended for the Rose Bowl after he broke a team rule and Thompkins battled injuries then miscues with McSorley in the Rose Bowl that led to two interceptions.
Hamilton struggled last season with drops after he dropped a potential go-head score in Week 2 against Pittsburgh. Penn State lost the game and the drop haunted him for most of the season.
“You see him and he’s got a look in his eyes that’s been different from the last couple years,” McSorley said.
Big man Juwan Johnson will also factor in after having an eye-opening camp complete with circus catches.
“Keep doing the things you did before, times two,” Johnson said. “This is a big opportunity for everyone.”
New old line
Having dealt with injuries to both starting tackles last season, Penn State was able to get a handful of players crucial experience in big games. Now, center Connor McGovern, guards Steven Gonzalez and Brendan Mahon and tackles Ryan Bates and Chasz Wright look ready to provide Barkley with more running room. Akron’s front seven is back to full strength with tackle Brock Boxen healthy and linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III leading the way. Penn State right tackle Andrew Nelson is still working back from an injury and is doubtful.
If the Zips are going to move the ball, strong-armed quarterback Thomas Woodson will have to find his groove with a bunch of new wideouts. Penn State is loaded with experience in its secondary but will need to find a reliable replacement for do-it-all corner John Reid who suffered a knee injury in the spring. Reid was a versatile piece who played nickel back in subpackages and returned punts.
Penn State coach James Franklin greenlit true freshmen corners Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields to play this season. They’ll be joined by freshman defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos who’s also expected to make his debut.
Find a pass rusher
Matos will join a defensive line that didn’t have a dominant pass rusher last year. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller have been around a while but haven’t had the snaps to post big sack numbers. They will this year. Expect both to try and pick on left tackle Trevor Brown, the Zips’ lone underclassmen up front.
A fresh start
It’s been a long layoff for Akron players who missed out on bowl eligibility when the Zips offense stalled with just seconds to go in a season finale loss to Ohio. A Tyrell Goodman pass to the end zone fell incomplete and sent the Zips into the offseason.