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CFF Targets - Penn State's next big-time WR
VP takes a look at the "Alabama of Pennsylvania"...
Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, with Alabama in between
- James Carville, Author
If only that quote from Carville were true in the realm of College Football. Instead, we have the Penn State Nittany Lions (PSU), which is a strong program, but has always been considered the ‘third team’ in the BIG10. The 2023 and 2024 seasons are a chance for Franklin and co. to change the narrative, though. With several standout true sophomores on offence and defence returning this year and next.
As a BIG10 outsider, I like Penn State. I don’t really know why, but I’ve always felt like they were my BIG10 team that I’d root for if I had to. Being a Dawgs fan, it helps that UGA’s done well in recent year taking kids out of PSU’s recruiting classes. UGA’s also done well in Pennsylvania, believe it or not, specifically in the City of Brotherly Love. Though, I guess the same could be said about Ohio State and Michigan, and I don’t particularly care for either of those programs.
Maybe it’s that despite the fact that PSU is located in central Pennsylvania—in a place called ‘State College’ to be exact, I always associated them with Philadelphia, and I’ve been an Eagles fan since I began watching football in the Donovan McNabb/Brian Westbrook/Brian Dawkins era.
Eagles fan? Dawgs fan? You’re probably trying to work out the connection. I don’t know what it is, but there must be some sort of mystical bond between the two organizations, as the Eagles’ GM—Howie Roseman, insists on drafting as many Bulldogs as he possibly can. Works for me!
But today I gather you all back to the Pigpen to discuss the Nittany Lions’ WR room—which is loaded with a stable of potentially overweight volume pigs in the making. With all-world QB recruit Drew Allar getting his chance to run the program now, this could be a minacious offence in 2023.
Coaching & System
PSU loses three of its top targets from a year ago: WRs Mitchell Tinsley and Parker Washington, and TE Brenton Strange. All together, that is 1550 receiving yards and 12 TDs vacating the roster.
What’s more, this is a program under head coach James Franklin that’s had success with 1000-yard receivers in the past. While they didn’t have one in 2022, they did in 2021 and in 2020, Jahan Dotson was well on pace to surpass the 1000-yard mark.
They’ve also had several seasons in which a WR was very close to the 1000-yard mark: in 2019, KJ Hamler was close, with 904 yards; Chris Godwin was very close in 2016 with 982 yards, and in the previous season he finished with 1101 yards.
James Franklin’s Vanderbilt squads (2011-2013) also produced two seasons with a 1000-yard WR in Jordan Mathews (2013, 2012).
PSU OC Mike Yurcich has been with the program since 2021, overseeing Dotson’s 1000-yard season. He spent the 2020 season as the OC of the Texas Longhorns, and 2019 as the pass-game coordinator for Ohio State. Neither of those seasons produced a 1000-yard WR. He spent 2013 to 2018 as the OC for Oklahoma State. Over those six seasons, his offences produced five 1000-yard WRs in Tylan Wallace (2018), James Washington (2017, 2016, 2015), and Marcell Ateman (2017).
This is an offensive system that has proven to be very WR friendly in the past, and although PSU is working in a new QB with two very talented tailbacks, CFF managers will want to pay attention to this room in advance of their drafts this summer. PSU also returns several veteran offensive lineman, including a potential top-five overall pick next April. This is a big year for the PSU program in general.
WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith — 6’1, 184
KeAndre Lambert Smith (KLS) returns as Penn State’s leading receiver from a year ago. The rising senior recorded 24 receptions (43 targets) for 389 yards and 4 TDs (7.9 FPG in 1-ppr). He actually had his best season statistically in 2021, when he caught 34 passes on 65 targets for 521 yards and 3 scores (8 FPG).
What caught my eye about KLS was that he finished last season with two back-to-back monster performances: 26.22 points vs. Michigan State, and 21.4 points vs. Utah in their bowl game. Against MSU, he caught 5 passes on 6 targets for 83 yards and a score, vs. Utah he caught 3 passes on 3 targets for 124 yards and a TD.
He also had notable performances vs. Purdue (15.8) and Ohio State (13.8).
Fun fact: he is the nephew of former NFL stud safety Kam Chancellor. The former Virginia football standout was a four-star recruit in the 2020 class, and compared to NFL WR Robert Woods as a player comp on 247 sports. At least we can check off the ‘good genes’ box from our checklist.
KLS has been ‘the third guy’ for two seasons in a row now, and I wonder if this isn’t the breakout season he’s been waiting for. As far as I’m concerned, (spoiler) there isn’t one name that jumps out at me in this room, but I like KLS the most of the names to emerge. If I’m drafting from this room I am going with KLS first in a standard CFF league.
WR Kaden Saunders — 5’10, 172
Saunders is an interesting one. With the PSU WR room, there is a bifurcation happening within the CFF community when it comes to which name they like. One group is high on the young pup—former four star recruit Kaden Saunders, the other crowd has gravitated toward MAC transfer Dante Cephas, who has already been productive in his career, albeit at a lower level.
You’ll notice from the 247 recruiting profile that Saunders hails from the state of Ohio. One has to wonder how a top-100 rated WR gets out of that state, especially when considering programs like Alabama and Penn State were recruiting him. Well, there’s usually only one explanation—according to 247 sports, he did not hold an offer from OSU. If that is in fact true (247 gets it wrong sometimes…) that’s usually enough for me to pause and wonder why on a player of this rating—and I think I trust OSU’s evaluations more than 247s.
Even still, Saunders is an intriguing option for PSU as he ascends into his sophomore form in 2023. The reports this spring were positive, PSU strength and conditioning coach Chuck Losey was pretty direct on what he’s seen with Kaden Saunders’ improvement:
He’s a different player right now.
QB Drew Allar also offered up some observations on Saunders’ development:
Kaden has grown a lot . . . He’s always asking me questions, in our room, on the field. We have a really good relationship. … I can tell he’s a lot more comfortable than he was last year. He’s playing fast. He’s playing fluid, and he’s gotten a lot stronger in the weight room.
Saunders’ build also suggests that if he’s starting he’ll probably be in the slot. The heights of Franklin’s 1000-yard receivers in the past are: 6’1, 6’3, and 5’11. Yurcich’s 1K-WRs were 5’11, 5’11, 5’11, and 6’4. So they generally come in all shapes and sizes with this staff, but most of those players that were listed at 5’11 still played on the boundary (Tylan Wallace, Jahan Dotson…).
I’m intrigued by Saunders, the spring reports are good; but he’d be the third or fourth WR I’d draft from this room for a 2023 CFF draft.
WR Dante Cephas — 6’1, 190
Fifth year super-senior Dante Cephas joins PSU by way of Kent State. He’s the most productive so far in his career out of any of the Nittany Lion WRs—but as I mentioned earlier, that production comes from a far-inferior level of play.
His best statistical season was in 2021, when he caught 82 passes for 1240 yards and 9 TDs in 14 games (18.4 FPG). Last season he fell to WR2 for KSU, as Devontez Walker took over the show. Cephas still had a solid showing, averaging 15.7 FPG with 48 receptions for 744 yards and 3 TDs in 9 games.
He was usually deployed as a deep threat for the offence, and he averaged over 15 yards per receptions in his last two seasons with Kent State. I’m thinking he’s probably going to fill a similar role for PSU.
My concern is that I do not know how much of what he does will translate to the BIG10. That’s a general concern with Group-of-Five (G5) players moving up to the Power-Five (P5).
I’d rather take a shot with one of the younger guys, like Saunders, KLS or the next player, but I get the appeal of a guy like Cephas. I’ve just seen far too many G5 studs get lost at the P5 level.
WR Omari Evans — 6’0 189
This is the one that probably intrigues me the most—if only for the fact that he has an interesting background.
The former three-star made the transition from high school quarterback to college wide receiver in the span of a few months when he arrived on campus. He was actually one of only 10 freshmen to burn a redshirt last season, and was the only one of the five receivers Penn State signed in the 2022 class to play more than four games. He was targeted 11 times and caught five passes for 55 yards in 12 games played in 2022 (1.7 FPG). He also had a 7-yard rush and returned two kicks. While PSU beat writers were surprised to see Evans at all so early, he had a different plan in mind:
At the end of the day, it’s just football. I’m an athlete . . . I have a lot of speed. You just gotta catch the ball.
I admire that attitude, football’s a simple game after all. Running and catching, I tell you!
pfff… alright settle down VP…
Coming back to Evans, whenever a player transitions positions and immediately sees some success, that always triggers my radar. It suggests the ceiling is quite high once they hone in on the skills of the position, and it sounds like that is in motion as we speak—Evans had a big spring game performance in April: he finished with a team-best five catches for 80 yards including a 28-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Drew Allar. It would be the only time any Nittany Lion reached the end zone.
Like many WRs, Evans was also a track-star in high school, competing in hurdles and long jump events. I know he also competed in standard running events (e.g., 100M) but on a cursory look I could not find any verified times. Still, this is a dynamic athlete who has played different positions throughout high school and is just now getting to hone his craft as a WR.
If KLS isn’t on the board, Evans is my second choice—in part due to the fact that hardly anyone knows about this kid (well, I guess not anymore…) and I’d look really cool to my league mates as this unknown commodity torches the BIG10 for my CFF roster.
My final thoughts are that I like KLS the most out of this room, but that there isn’t one name that grabs me as a must-have CFF asset. The good news is that these guys don’t generally get taken very high in drafts. According to C2C data:
KLS — 190.6 ADP, which is approximately the 16th round in a standard 12-man league
Kaden Saunders — 192 ADP
Dante Cephas — 128.6 ADP, which is approximately the 10th round
Omari Evans — NA
At the very least, if you’re in a dynasty or C2C style format, I think Evans is an interesting piece to consider. In 2024, Drew Allar will still be there (unless he transfers, which is unlikely), and Cephas will likely be out of eligibility. KLS will likely declare for the NFL draft if he has a solid season (he is entering his fourth year of college football…), which leaves a pretty wide-open room for a kid who’s already been making some waves. He’s even got that #5 like Jahan Dotson… coincidence? I think not…
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