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PSU WRs need work on getting separation, but claim they are getting open

Receivers always think they’re open. That’s their mindset, their way of life. It’s their MO, and engrained in their DNA.

Even if there’s a defensive back draped on them in coverage, receivers possess an uncanny – and sometimes unrealistic – world view that they should have the ball thrown to them so they can make a play.

One of the key words of this 2014 Penn State season has been separation. Coach James Franklin said the Nittany Lion receivers haven’t done a good job of getting separation, which is one of the reasons why the offense has struggled so much.

“We have to get better there,” said Franklin, whose Lions are preparing for Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College.

Interestingly enough, however, Penn State’s top two receivers disputed the notion that they’re not getting separation.

“I think we did a good job all season of getting separation,” DaeSean Hamilton said.

“I feel like we were getting open on plays,” Geno Lewis said.

OK, so which is it?

Is the coach correct in pointing out that a big part of the offensive problems is his receivers can’t get open?

Are the receivers correct when they say they are getting open? Or are they merely living in their “I’m always open” world?

“I think we got open,” Hamilton said. “That comes from the receivers, the running backs and the tight ends – somebody was open on probably every play. The receivers, as a corps, we all did our jobs as well as we could.”

Hamilton leads the Big Ten with 75 catches, a PSU freshman record, so of course he’s going to believe he’s been open a ton. But many of his catches have been on quick-hitters at or near the line of scrimmage, as opposed to down the field or across the middle.

Proof of that lies in the numbers. Even though he has more catches than any other Big Ten receiver, Hamilton’s average reception of 11.3 yards is third lowest among the league’s top 10 wideouts. Additionally, only one of his 75 grabs went for a touchdown.

Lewis is second on the team with 48 catches, but 32 of those came in the first six games and only 16 in the final six contests. His average per catch is a healthy 13.9 yards, but like Hamilton, he caught only one touchdown.

Lewis believes the receivers have done what they needed to do to get open for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

“If you go back and look at the (Michigan State) film, we were getting open, it was just we weren’t on the same page at all times,” Lewis said. “Sometimes it was an overthrown ball or we’ve got to go up and make a play.

“Me and DaeSean and all the other receivers, we’ve got to have confidence in what we can do and what we’re capable of. We can get open, and that’s what we’re going to believe at the end of the day.”

There probably were many plays where the receivers did get separation, but it was a second or two before Hackenberg was in position to throw the ball because he was being chased out of the pocket. A pass play is all about timing, and everything has to come together at the same time for one to be successful.

If anything, perhaps it’s been that timing – not the lack of separation by receivers – that has plagued the offense the most. Because the offensive line has struggled so much, it has thrown off so many things that the offense would like to attempt.

“The more time we have to hold the ball, the more time you have to work the route and work the defender,” Franklin said. “So one thing affects the other.”

Getting separation from a defender isn’t just about speed or route running basics, and all of PSU’s young wideouts have had to learn that this season.

Franklin went into great detail about one area where the receivers do need to improve. As the coach put it, there cannot be any wasted movement by the receivers from the beginning of the play to the end, or else it can throw off the timing.

Franklin held one hand straight up to represent a receiver’s foot, then turned his other hand slightly inward representing the other foot. He said something as simple as failing to have both feet pointed in the same direction leads to wasted movement because it takes a fraction of a second for the other foot to straighten out.

“It’s all of those little things that may be the difference in catching the 50-yard bomb in the air or just coming off your fingertips.” Franklin said.

Those are the little things the receivers have continued to work on during bowl preparation and will do more of this offseason to be better prepared for next year.

“That’s just repetitive stuff, muscle-memory type things,” Hamilton said. “Coach Franklin and all the coaches talk about little things.”

A bunch of little things add up to a big problem, and certainly Penn State’s offensive troubles this season can be traced back to many areas. For their part, the receivers know what they have to work on and will be expected to correct the concerns as they get more experience.

“We can be a lot better,” Lewis said. “We’re still a really young group, and this is really the first year for a lot of guys playing and getting experience.

“As the years keep going, it’s going to keep getting better and better and getting more confidence, learning more experiences, seeing different coverages and learning what to do on each and every one. I see there’s no ceiling for this group, and I’m really excited for the future.”