Speedy Polk hoping ‘it’s my time’ this year
By Neil Rudel
UNIVERSITY PARK — It seems like a lifetime ago, the 2015 season opener, when Brandon Polk burst onto the Penn State scene.
What most will remember about his first game, a 27-10 loss at Temple, is that Christian Hackenberg, seemingly wearing cement shoes behind a matador offensive line, was sacked 10 times.
What most probably won’t remember is how Polk, a speedy little freshman receiver and still one of the Nittany Lions’ fastest players, appeared to be a significant part of the game plan.
In what was a new wrinkle in then-offensive coordinator John Donovan’s offense, Polk took the Nittany Lions’ very first play from scrimmage on a jet sweep and raced 33 yards up the sidelines.
Who was this guy?
“I just remember on the first play, they gave me the jet sweep, and I almost felt like I was in high school again,” Polk was saying at Penn State’s media day. “The way I was coming across and getting the ball and doing what I could do in the open space … it was a very exciting game for me.
“I was just happy to show people what I could do.”
Polk carried three times against the Owls for 50 yards and was used enough in the run game to finish the season with 159 yards while averaging 8.8 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown.
But he pretty much hasn’t been heard from since.
The Lions’ obviously found a better running option in Saquon Barkley (who carried once in that Temple game), and Polk hasn’t carried at all in the last two seasons.
He was a backup receiver last year, pulling in 10 receptions to set his career total at 18.
With all-time receiving leader DaeSean Hamilton lost to graduation, not to mention prolific tight end Mike Gesicki and deep threat Saeed Blacknall, Polk is still around waiting for another extended opportunity.
“I feel like this is the year for me and for our whole group,” he said. “Hammy (Hamilton) left and Saeed, all them have left and have left huge shoes to follow. Me as well as other receivers have the juice to show people what we’ve got.”
Juwan Johnson, whose last-second touchdown reception from Trace McSorley defeated Iowa last year, has established himself as the top returning receiver, but the position is still well stocked with DeAndre Thompkins and heralded underclassmen K.J. Hamler, Mac Hippenhammer and true freshman Justin Shorter.
“We’ve got a great group of receivers this year, a lot of guys giving effort,” first-year receivers coach David Corley said. “There’s going to be a lot of competition.
We’d love to try to find a role for Brandon to help contribute to winning games. He’s got a lot of speed.”
Polk, whose 4.39 was the fastest of the wideout in PSU’s winter workouts, played at the same high school in Virginia, Briar Woods, as McSorley.
“Trace was always a winner,” Polk said. “He was just different, a different kind of swag.”
Polk’s patience has not been taxed over the last couple seasons. He feels learning from Hamilton and the Lions’ other receivers has been “a blessing.”
“At first, I asked why (his role diminished), but now I realize this is what God has in store for me,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep my head down and keep working and not let opportunity slip through my fingers. I just feel this is my time. I don’t feel like a forgotten man, and I don’t feel wronged in any way.”
His freshman cameos whet his appetite but also taught him about becoming a more complete receiver.
“In high school, you can run certain routes and be open regardless,” he said. “With the transition of my freshman year, when I was more of a one-trick pony running jet sweeps, it’s been a blessing to watch people before me — how they run their routes and be able to get open and do certain things. I feel like it’s helped me protect my craft.”
His maturity has impressed his teammates.
“Brandon has always been putting in work behind the scenes, as a student of the game,” Johnson said. “He was blessed to have the opportunity under his belt as a freshman. Not a lot of guys get that. He could have a huge role this year.
Whether he’s been forgotten or not, this year, he’s going to be known.”