In its two games, Penn State scored 96 points and piled up more than 800 yards of offense with stunning balance — 416 yards on the ground, 408 in the air.
It did that, though, without much production from its two most accomplished receivers.
Senior DeAndre Thompkins and junior Juwan Johnson struggled in several aspects this season, especially when it comes to catching the football.
Johnson dropped several passes from quarterback Trace McSorley in the season opener against Appalachian State, then saw another go through his hands against Pittsburgh. While Johnson has a team-high eight receptions, Thompkins is looking for his first catch. Against Pitt, the senior dropped two potential touchdowns.
“I think both Juwan and DeAndre have higher standards and expectations of how they want to play,” head coach James Franklin said Tuesday. “I think there’s a few plays they would like to have back, there’s no doubt about it.”
Johnson and Thompkins are easily the most prolific receivers returning for the Nittany Lions in 2018, combining last season for 82 catches for 1,144 yards and four touchdowns. But they’re still looking to make a big impact heading into Saturday’s return to Beaver Stadium against Kent State.
So far, redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler is McSorley’s top end zone target, and Thompkins was somewhat demoted on the depth chart the Nittany Lions released Monday, listing him and junior Brandon Polk as co-starters.
Polk, a former high school teammate of McSorley’s in Virginia, has four catches, one touchdown and is averaging 16 yards per catch.
Franklin praised the effort both made as blockers against the Panthers, and Thompkins returned a punt for a score at Heinz Field as well. So, he pointed out, it’s not like they haven’t been productive. But, he also said he’s certain both are working hard enough to overcome the unsteady hands that have marked their first two games.
“I’ve got tremendous confidence that we’re going to look back at the end of the year and say, ‘Wow, what huge years these guys had,’ ” Franklin said. “I’m very, very confident that that’s going to happen.”
Franklin backed up his assertion he’d get more meaningful snaps for his backups and younger prospects last week against Pittsburgh, and he said that would likely continue this week.
Franklin said the staff is considering using some players this week who haven’t been in a game yet, mentioning true freshman receiver Jahan Dotson by name.
Dotson took camp by storm, scoring more touchdowns than any other receiver during the preseason. But, he didn’t appear in either of the first two games for the Nittany Lions.
“We had a lot of discussions this week about some guys that maybe we would use this week and get them a little bit of experience,” Franklin said. “So we’ll see how that plays out. There’s a lot of confidence in Jahan and what he brings to the table. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
New NCAA rules allow a true freshman to appear in as many as four games and still maintain his redshirt eligibility, which Franklin said earlier this season makes playing more freshman a distinct possibility.
Franklin wouldn’t go into details about why junior cornerback John Reid didn’t play against Pittsburgh, but he hinted the former all-Big Ten performer’s absence was injury related. “I don’t get into injuries and things like that,” Franklin said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll have John this week.” There was no word on the two other contributors who haven’t played this season. Defensive end Shane Simmons and backup quarterback Tommy Stevens have been out with apparent foot injuries.