Lions rich at WR position
UNIVERSITY PARK – It looked like so much had been thrown away when the NCAA handed down its sanctions against the Penn State football program last summer.
Brandon Felder, though, caught his break and ran with it. Literally.
Provided a chance to start with the transfer of Justin Brown to Oklahoma, Felder, who had just seven receptions in his first three years at Penn State, established himself as a wide receiver Bill O’Brien and his Nittany Lion staff could count on.
“I had to overcome many obstacles, dealing with injuries and all that stuff,” the 6-foot-2, 199-pound Felder said. “Heading into the season, I had to clear my head and focus on playing football, just taking it day by day.
“I got better.”
Felder hauled in 31 passes as a redshirt junior in 2012 and enters the season, which opens on Saturday against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J., as part of a receiving corp that, led by All-American candidate Allen Robinson, is one of the Lions’ strongest positions.
“We’ve got a lot of skill on this team.” Robinson said. “If some teams try to [overplay me], you’re going to see a lot of success for other guys.”
That includes players like speedy Alex Kenney, towering Matt Zanellato and redshirt freshman prodigy Eugene Lewis, but the player likely to get the most opportunities to be a difference-maker is Felder.
“I’m practicing harder than I did last year. Hopefully I have better results than I did last year,” Felder said.
Felder replaced Shawney Kersey, who eventually transferred, in the starting lineup three games into the season without having a catch. He made steady improvement from there, raising his number of receptions four straight weeks before turning in a six-catch, 129-yard performance in the win over Purdue. He also scored his only career touchdown against the Boilermakers.
Felder caught at least four passes in five games. One of those came against Ohio State, when he had a 42-yard grab.
“He had game experience. It’s all about opportunity. He took advantage of it,” receivers coach Stan Hixon said of Felder’s emergence. “Obviously, being smart and knowing the offense is a big part of that. Brandon’s a good route runner, and he’s got pretty good hands. He’s probably more technician than speed, but, if you saw us last year, he got deep some, too.”
Hixon used the term “being in the right place at the right time” when describing the reason Felder was able to turn in such a good year. Part of that was being able to get onto the field, part of it was all the attention Robinson got and part of it was the style of offense and the approach O’Brien and Hixon brought from the NFL.
“It was a big change from when Coach Paterno was here to Coach O’Brien,” said Felder, who was recruiting by the previous staff from Oxon Hill High School in Maryland. “But football’s football. You have to go out and do what you can do.”
Felder’s still got some specific plans for how to get even better this season.
“For any kind receiver, you want to work on your route running,” Felder said. “And conditioning, as well. Playing receiver is a fast-paced game. You want to be in the best shape you can be.”
There are several other wideouts on the roster who are positioned to make a similar progression this year to what Felder accomplished last season. One of them is Kenney – the sprinter from State College caught 17 passes as a redshirt sophomore for about 10 yards per reception.
The biggest thing seeming to stand in Kenney’s way is where he fits in. More of a running back in high school, Kenney said he’ll play primarily in the slot this season but will see some time on the outside. He’s also going to be in the mix to return kickoffs and punts.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Kenney said. “Last year, I was learning the offense. This year, I’m trying to master it. I think it’s going to be a different year for me. It’s very challenging to learn. I just want to perform. I want to go out and do my best and make some plays this year.”
Hixson said Kenney’s numbers last year were a bit deceiving.
“Alex did a good job for us. His production based on his attempts was pretty high,” Hixon said, noting Kenney might only have been thrown to around 20 times. “Our job this year, with his improvement, with his speed, with his athletic ability, we’re going to do some special things for him to get the ball into his hands.”
Of course, in Penn State’s offense, more than three receivers will get shots. Zanellato and Lewis figure to see significant action, too.
Zanellato, who checks in at 6-3, 202 pounds, caught two passes as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Lewis, meanwhile, was making a name for himself on the scout team; the word was spread that he would be a big-time talent when he finally got into a game, and O’Brien said he was opening eyes early in practice.
“He had an unbelievable one-handed catch the other day with his right hand, never brought his left hand in,” O’Brien said on media day. “What a great kid, too. Just always has a smile on his face, fantastic guy to coach. And then Zanny has come in here and done a nice job. He’s really worked hard in the offseason. He’s stronger, he’s bigger, he’s a physical receiver, and he works extremely hard, and so both those guys will play for us this year.”
O’Brien has been mentioning the 6-1, 201-pound Lewis going back before last season, and fans have been eager to get a glimpse of the former all-state player from the Wilkes-Barre area.
“I’m really excited to show these fans what I’ve got,” Lewis said. “Any opportunity I have to make a play, I want to do it. Whatever Coach O’Brien makes my role, I’m going to go out there and try to be as successful as I can.”
Lewis thought getting to play alongside Robinson and Felder worked in his favor.
“Allen and Brandon have been great guys. They’ve been great leaders to me. I look at their game to put it together with mine,” Lewis said.
Robinson’s game alone would offer quite a full plate. The junior from Southfield, Mich. turned in one of the greatest seasons ever for a Nittany Lion receiver in 2012, catching 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns.
After Robinson was named the Big Ten receiver of the year, O’Brien is looking to expand his role and move him around. Robinson is looking for even better things this fall.
“I’ve got to try to continue to make plays. Going into the offseason, I tried to get bigger, stronger and faster. I’ve been trying to do some different things with my route running so I’m exploding out of my breaks,” Robinson said. “I made some plays last year, but this year I think I have to make a few more.”
It’s quite conceivable that Robinson could be a better receiver this year and not have quite the numbers he had as a sophomore, because the depth at his position will give Lion quarterbacks opportunities to take advantage of other mismatches on the field.
“Physically, we’re all better and improved over last season,” Robinson said. “Now we just have to go out and play like we are.”