UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State's previous coaching staff couldn't decide what to do with Alex Kenney, but new coach Bill O'Brien made a quick determination about the former State College Area High School track star.
"He said that normally track guys play offense," Kenney said. "Track guys run forward, so it made a lot of sense to play offense."
Kenney was recruited as a receiver but spent his first two seasons at PSU shuffling back and forth between wideout and defensive back. The redshirt sophomore said he made the move four different times, had no say in the process at any point and called it "very frustrating."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
State College product Alex Kenney was shuttled between offense and defense four different times under Joe Paterno’s staff, but new coach Bill O’Brien quickly
decided Kenney would be a wide receiver.
Now Kenney is on offense to stay - or at least he hopes that's the case - and the speedster has a chance to emerge as an impact playmaker on a receiving corps that's long on athletic ability but short on experience.
Derek Moye (45 catches last season) graduated and is now with the New Orleans Saints. Devon Smith (25 catches) left the team for personal reasons and transferred to Marshall. And in a surprising development, senior Justin Brown (35 catches) left PSU and transferred to Oklahoma.
The Lions not only lost their top three receivers from 2011, the statistics of the players they have coming back are troubling, to say the least. All players left on the roster combined to catch just 23 passes last year, and no returning player had more than five receptions (junior Shawney Kersey and senior running back Michael Zordich caught five apiece).
Penn State is expected to throw a lot and have a more sophisticated passing attack under O'Brien, but exactly who will be catching most of Matt McGloin's passes is one of the team's biggest question marks entering the season.
"Stats might not say it, but I think as a group and within the group we definitely know that we can go out there and play ball," sophomore Allen Robinson said.
"We feel good about the wide receivers," O'Brien said before later adding, "Specifically with that position, we have Shawney Kersey, Allen Robinson. These guys are 6-3, they both can run, jump, they have great hands. They're good competitors. They're tough."
Kersey and Robinson figure to be the top receiving threats, but they are unproven with only eight catches combined last year. Junior Brandon Moseby-Felder had four receptions in 2011 and will be in the mix, along with junior Christian Kuntz (one catch), senior Evan Lewis and redshirt freshman Matt Zanellato.
Having Brown back would have helped take pressure off the rest of the receivers, although he had his struggles with drops last year.
"It was a little surprise," Robinson said of Brown's departure. "But at the end of the day, that's the decision that he made, and he felt it was best for him."
"Justin is a great receiver, and we wish him the best for where he's going," Kuntz said. "But Coach O'Brien is going to shape this offense around what we have. He's very good at picking out talent."
Because there's so much unproven talent, Kenney would seem to have as good of a chance as any to be a key contributor as a slot receiver this season. He said he's "much better at receiver" than defensive back, and he has the kind of speed to be dangerous if he can run good routes, get open and catch the ball.
Kenney holds the Pennsylvania indoor record in the 60 meters (6.80 seconds), plus he finished second in the state in the 100 meters (10.63) and third in the 200 meters (21.42) as a senior at State College in the 2010 PIAA championships. He also ran a PSU team-best 6.96 seconds in the 60 meters at the 2011 Big Ten Indoor championships.
Being from State College has given Kenney a lot of notoriety, with many Penn State fans asking frequent questions about his development and when he would see some playing time.
"Now my opportunity is here, so I'm going to make the best of it," Kenney said.
He humbly admitted he can't guarantee he will get a lot of playing time, but he knows that if he performs well in training camp that he "should be playing on Saturdays."
One thing that should help Penn State's receivers is O'Brien's heavy focus on the tight ends. There will be at least two and maybe even three on the field at all times, and as Kuntz said, "It's going to be tough for college coaches to scheme against us."
The receivers will enter the season as a question mark, but they'll have plenty of opportunities to prove people wrong in O'Brien's new passing attack.
"People didn't see this group do too much last year," Robinson said of the receivers. "But with the new offense that was brought in, I think definitely this group can start some fireworks."