UNIVERSITY PARK - From a distance without their jerseys, it's difficult to distinguish Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams from each other.
At 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 171 pounds, Norwood is a whole inch taller and pound heavier than Butler. Williams has about 30 pounds on the other two but is only 6 feet tall himself.
They began playing football for Penn State at the same time and have similar - if not identical - styles.
Mirror file photo
Jordan Norwood is statistically one of the top six Nittany Lion receivers of all time.
Off the field, though, the differences between the Nittany Lions' three senior receivers become more pronounced. Norwood is the quiet, unassuming one. Williams is the vocal go-getter.
''I guess I'm just the character in the group,'' Butler says with a smile. ''We just all complement each other well, and we all get along great. It's been a lot of fun over the years.''
By the numbers
Last season's and career numbers for Penn State's three senior wide receivers, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams
Butler132 (2)1,961 (5)15 (t4)
Norwood117 (t4)1,378 (12)7
Williams117 (t4)1,258 (15)5
Note: Number in parentheses is career ranking.
Not just for them, either. The trio has been a big part of the Nittany Lions' success since they were freshman in 2005. They comprise the first trio of receivers to haul in 40 or more catches in two straight years.
Butler, Williams and Norwood all enter Saturday's season opener with Coastal Carolina ranked among the Nittany Lions' top six reception leaders of all-time. By the end of the year, barring injury, they'll at least hold three of the top four spots. Butler only needs 35 catches to surpass Bobby Engram at the top of the charts.
''They're big time,'' junior receiver Brett Brackett said. ''When I was coming in as a freshman, those guys were huge. That's who I watched in the Orange Bowl when I was in high school.''
With first-year starters at quarterback and running back, it's easy to see why the three - and the receivers in general - are being looked upon as one of the big cornerstones for this year's Penn State football team. The Nittany Lions' version of ''The Three Amigos'' are well aware of that as they prepare for the last act at Beaver Stadium this fall.
''We've been together a long time,'' Butler said at media day a few weeks ago. ''We've been through a lot together. It's going to be a great experience our last year. We're all excited for the same thing. So it's going to be something special.''
''Obviously, we all know that it is [our final year]. We just really want to make the most of it,'' Norwood added. ''That was kind of unsaid, but said in how hard we worked in the offseason. We kind of felt as a receiving corps, that we knew it was our last time together, and we wanted to make the best of it.
''We're seniors now and we need to be leaders and show the rest of the team what it takes. We're definitely looking to get there with the work we're putting in and the practices and everything. The way I look at things, hopefully that will all take care of itself as far as wins.''
While they are similar in stature and production, there are subtle differences in what Williams, Norwood and Butler bring to the table. Coming to Penn State originally as a preferred walk-on, Butler has emerged as the deep threat: He's averaged almost 15 yards per catch in his career and only four Nittany Lions in history have more than his 15 career touchdown grabs. He had a team record 216 receiving yards in a 2006 game against Northwestern.
Norwood, the son for former Lion assistant coach Brian Norwood who came in as a grayshirt recruit, is the sure-handed, reliable possession receiver and was a surprisingly effective red-zone threat last year with five touchdowns. Williams, meanwhile, was the No. 1 recruit in the country according to some scouting services his senior year of high school and is the one who is considered most dangerous after the catch, a running back playing wideout.
''They're some of the top receivers in the nation,'' said Lion cornerback A.J. Wallace.
In Williams' Butler's and Norwood's three years, Penn State has gone 29-9. Last year, they accounted for 142 receptions for 1,646 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
Their presence will have to go beyond the numbers this year, at least in the early going while either Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin get their feet wet under center. However, having three polished and proven receivers in a spread offense is a nice safety net to have.
''It's great. It's absolutely great,'' Devlin said. ''They're so great having out here and especially in the film room. They'll see things, little things, I hadn't seen, and they'll let me know.''
Still, the Lions have grown so accustomed to being able to rely on the Big Three for the last three years that finding someone to establish themselves as the next in line has been difficult, especially after the highly-touted but enigmatic Chris Bell's dismissal from the team.
''We've got to work with some kids,'' Lion coach Joe Paterno said. ''We've got some good young people that I think have a chance to do it. There's about five or six kids who I think will have an opportunity to at least be adequate.''
There's also the matter of finding a big target to further complement the smaller Norwood-Williams-Butler combination. Terrell Golden filled that niche last year, but he's graduated.
There are some contenders out there, though. Butler calls them ''The Trees'' - players like the 6-6 Brackett or 6-5 redshirt freshman Derek Moye, a high school track star in addition to being a football all-stater.
In fact, Penn State broke camp with eight receivers checking in at 6-2 or taller.
''Those guys' size definitely brings a whole different element to this offense,'' Butler said. ''Maybe they're not as open as they could be, but you can throw a jump ball to those guys, and they'll just go up and get it. Just red zone is going to be a big difference with those guys.''
Brackett is now in his second year at receiver after being moved from quarterback.
''Looking at it from this point last year to now, I feel completely different,'' Brackett said. ''I feel so much more comfortable. At this point last year, I was trying to learn stuff and know the offense. This year, I know the offense. Now it's critiquing my routes.''
''They're going to bring a lot,'' Norwood said of the younger receivers. ''You'll see Brett Brackett out there, probably [former walk-on] Graham Zug out there this year, too. We're going to have another year of versatile wide receivers, I feel. A lot of those guys will see some playing time.''
Brackett gave credit for a lot of his development to the seniors, and he said having them back for one more year will keep him in a comfort zone.
''I don't think it's a pressure on us,'' Bracket said. ''These guys have done great things for the university and the football program and still have one year left, but we're kind of excited that there are some people behind those three that are extremely good athletes who are really good at what they do and looking for an opportunity to show what they can do.''
However, that won't overshadow Butler, Norwood and Williams taking one last opportunity to show what they can do.
''It's going to be tough for me to realize when we get down to senior day,'' Butler said. ''You kind of look back to my freshman year when Mike [Robinson] and those guys where seniors. They kind of cried on their Senior Day. I don't like to think of that, but I can see it easily happening.
''You definitely feel the urgency as a senior. No more games. No more next year possible. This is it. You want everything done right.''