Penn State waiting for wide receiver to emerge as top option for 2023 season

AUGUST 08, 2023 1:02 PM
There was joy in the way KeAndre Lambert-Smith carried himself Sunday at Penn State’s local media day. The junior wide receiver happily showed a reporter the tattoos he has on his arms, describing each as he went before remarking on the ones he saw on a reporter standing nearby.
Lambert-Smith’s Sunday fun could be indicative of what’s to come for the junior. He’s admitted to struggling with moving on from mistakes in the past, causing drop issues, and that’s one of the things that has held him back. If those things are on his mind, it wasn’t showing at media day where he was confident and comfortable.
He spent the last couple of years as a tertiary piece of the Nittany Lion passing attack, but Sunday was the beginning of his time in the spotlight.
He’s now at the forefront of an offense that will be looked to for a step up in 2023. And even more importantly he’s leading a position group in need of a true top option. There may not be a more important competition on the offense this season than the one between the receivers.
One month away from the team’s season opener, the Nittany Lions are waiting for someone to step up and claim that spot as the No. 1 wide receiver.
The fire to be atop the depth chart is already driving the competition in the position room.
“That’s one of our core values: Compete in everything you do,” Lambert-Smith said at media day. “And I feel like when you’re in a room where you got guys pushing to be that No. 1 receiver — no matter if you’re a sophomore, freshman — you want to be the No. 1 receiver. So when you got guys coming in with that mindset, and you’re trying to work like that every day, it’s only gonna make each one of us better.”
By the conclusion of spring practice it was Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace III who were consistently receiving praise from Penn State head coach James Franklin. That shouldn’t be overly surprising considering they’re the only two wideouts that had over 100 receiving yards last season that are returning.
They’re both trying to take a step forward despite being at different points in their careers. While Lambert-Smith has struggled with drops and inconsistency in the past while maintaining a consistent role in the offense, Wallace showed flashes last season and is on a more linear progression heading into his third season at Penn State.
Those two are fighting for the top spot and the most targets from sophomore quarterback Drew Allar, and their competitiveness is pushing each to get better. That’s having a trickle down affect that is helping all of the young players at the position.
“So like with me and (Wallace), specifically, I like to think I’m the most athletic person in the world,” Lambert-Smith said. “But (Wallace), he pushes me when it comes to cone drills, and we got a jump. We’re always challenging each other. I’m, ‘I bet I get further than you.’ He’s like ‘All right, bet it.’ We’re always just betting who’s going to get further, who’s going to jump the highest, who’s going bench the most, who’s going to power-clean the most, and I feel like that’s created a culture in the room. So now, the young guys see it and they want to compete with us. And I don’t take it easy. So they compete with themselves and, as a whole room, we compete with each other. And, at the end of the day, it’s making everybody better.”
The other factor here is transfer wide receiver Dante Cephas, who joins the program after beginning his career at Kent State. Cephas compiled 1,984 yards and 12 touchdowns over the last two seasons and has the strongest track record of the bunch.
Still, he comes in facing a steep increase in competition after going from the Mid-American Conference to the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said the transition has not been an issue so far.
“What we do know is that he won’t blink,” Yurcich said. “... He’s had big time game experience. So you can see that early on, that he understands the competitive nature of this level and this game. And so it’s early to tell, but it’s headed in the right direction.”
Cephas’ emergence at the top would be a massive boon for a receiving corps that can only guarantee production from two players right now.
That’s not to say the rest of the depth chart isn’t going to be helpful or can’t emerge. Franklin said the program has eight or nine players that are showing flashes in the early stages of fall camp at receiver. But still, that’s only flashing potential. The Nittany Lions need top of the depth chart options.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if that player is a physical receiver like Chris Godwin was when he led the team in receiving in 2015 or 2016, or if they’re slight but athletic and smooth like Jahan Dotson when he did the same in 2020 and 2021. New wide receivers coach Marques Hagans — who was hired in January after the program fired former WRs coach Taylor Stubblefield — isn’t beholden to a player needing a certain stature to succeed.
“I think the height doesn’t matter,” Hagans said. “Whether he’s 6-4 or whether he’s 5-9, if he’s the guy getting the job done, he’s the guy that’s gonna play. And I think that’s the beauty of our system, our offense and what we believe in as a culture. It’s competitive every day, so the guys who are winning the competition and winning their reps and making plays, those are the guys that are going to play. The height has no limitations on who sees the field. So we got a good group of guys, a different range of guys with different skill sets, but at the end of the day, we’re gonna play the guys who we trust and who give us the best chance to win week in and week out.”
Whether that player has elite height like Malik McClain or Malick Meiga at 6-foot-4, or is smaller like Kaden Saunders at 5-foot-10 or ends up somewhere in between, somebody has to step up.
That’s true on the field where Allar needs weapons on the outside to make plays, but it’s also true off the field where new voices will have to emerge. Not only did the team lose its top two receivers and veterans in Mitchell Tinsley and Parker Washington, but it also had the aforementioned coaching turnover that means there are all new voices leading the room.
Lambert-Smith is one of the most experienced players at receiver and would have all the reason to take over vocally and put his stamp on it from a leadership standpoint. But instead he’s empowering everyone to contribute in that regard and is establishing a culture of accountability.
“I definitely don’t look at it like, ‘Oh, this is my room. We’re gonna do it my way,’” he said. “I definitely know I am a vet in the room; me, Meiga, I feel like we have been in the room the longest. So that’s naturally, all right, I’m the leader of the room — but, like I say, all the guys, like I got Kaden, who pushes me every day. He holds me accountable. Everybody. No pride is too big, no ego is too big; everybody is held accountable the same. I don’t get treated no differently, even though they may look at me as the leader, I look at everybody as a leader. Everybody leads in their own way. And I feel like at the end of the day, you want to become a leader so you got to work like a leader. You gotta have those leadership qualities, and I feel like our guys have that. And we’re working to sharpen those every day. So, at the end of the day, I feel like it’s everybody’s room.”
The junior receiver is saying all the right things and pushing things in the right direction for the group — a positive sign for the fate of the position this season. He’s the most obvious candidate to take a massive step forward in production given his new leadership position and his experience.
And a big-time breakout from Lambert-Smith would do wonders for the offense that will dictate much of how this season goes for the team. But whether it’s him, Wallace or Cephas, somebody has to do it.
If whoever it is does it well enough, they could end up being the top option on a team that makes the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history.

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