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Penn State assistant coach is optimistic about wide receivers rebounding

Marques Hagans says he “likes where we’re going” after lackluster 2023 performance

Harrison Wallace III and the rest of the Penn State wide receivers hope to make a big improvement this season with the addition of offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Harrison Wallace III and the rest of the Penn State wide receivers hope to make a big improvement this season with the addition of offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
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Penn State assistant coach Marques Hagans and the wide receivers he coaches have made a pact not to look back on last season.

And for good reason.

KeAndre Lambert-Smith was the only wide receiver to catch more than 22 passes and he’s transferred to Auburn. Wideouts had just 20 receptions in the final four games.

Two additions can help the group improve, along with more maturity and commitment.

Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki arrived from Kansas in December with a background of creative play-calling. Former Southern Columbia High School star Julian Fleming transferred from Ohio State in January with much experience in the Big Ten.

Julian Fleming hopes to boost the Penn State wide receivers after making 60 catches the last two seasons at Ohio State. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Julian Fleming hopes to boost the Penn State wide receivers after making 60 catches the last two seasons at Ohio State. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

“The guys have bought in,” Hagans said. “I like the way they’ve been working to make sure we’re executing at a high level. I think you guys will be able to see exactly the changes that we made once the season unfolds. I like where we’re going.”

Wide receivers struggled to gain separation last season, which enabled defenses to crowd the line to slow running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Penn State rarely threatened opponents with its downfield passing.

Quarterback Drew Allar threw for 25 touchdowns, but only three of them were 30 yards or longer. With Kotelnicki at Kansas last year, the Jayhawks ranked third in the nation with 10.04 yards per pass attempt compared to 6.77 for the Lions, who ranked 92nd.

Kotelnicki said it takes a combination of scheme and ability for receivers to get open.

“There’s always going to be certain situations where elite, talented receivers have the ability to create separation,” he said. “We train our players to know how to do that. There are things within a scheme from what you’re going to do with run and pass, alignments, splits, motions and different personnel groupings that you can do to help create softness, openness and misdirection.”

The most important factor for Penn State’s wide receivers might be the health of Fleming, whose injuries slowed his progress at Ohio State, and junior Harrison Wallace III, who missed six games last season because of an injury.

Wallace caught 19 passes in each of the last two seasons with two TD receptions. Fleming had 60 receptions for 803 yards the last two years with the Buckeyes. By most accounts, he’s setting an example for the younger Penn State receivers.

“He embraced the culture [in the spring semester],” Hagans said. “Now he’s helping to build the culture. He blends in with the other guys. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re going to be such a different group because he’s joined us.”

Wallace opened last season with seven catches for 72 yards against West Virginia, missed a lot of time because of an injury and finished with four receptions for 67 yards and a TD against Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.

Penn State coach James Franklin said Wallace’s limited availability hurt the passing game. Hagans hopes that other receivers such as Omari Evans, Kaden Saunders and Liam Clifford become more productive with Lambert-Smith, Malick Meiga, Malik McClain and Carmelo Taylor transferring after spring practice.

“I think the culture of the room is different because it’s a new year,” Hagans said. “I think the guys who are in the room are in a different space. Guys have matured. Guys are older. Guys are getting better at certain phases of their careers.”

Hagans enjoyed success at Virginia, his previous stop. He coached two receivers who are in the NFL, Olamide Zaccheaus with Atlanta and Dontavyion Wicks with Green Bay. He believes it takes a winning culture to produce outstanding receivers.

“It’s everything,” he said. “It’s practice habits. It’s film habits. It’s taking care of your body. It’s everything that we do that gives us a chance to be the best group in the country.

“There’s no disrespect to anybody but at some point we have to feel that way and we’re going to work toward that. That’s going to be the standard. If it’s not to be the best, what’s the point of doing it?”

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