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August 18, 2014
Wanted: Big plays, please
In Allen Robinson, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg had a guy that could "climb the ladder" to make big plays seemingly at will throughout the 2013 season.
Beyond Robinson's iconic 36-yard leaping reception to prompt the Nittany Lions' stunning comeback win against Michigan, he also had 10 other receptions of more than 40 yards on the year, cementing his place as Penn State's go-to to create big plays and come through in the clutch.
Robinson is in the NFL now, of course, drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round following his second consecutive All-Big Ten campaign as a junior. Hackenberg's ability to connect with big plays doesn't have to go with him, though.
In fact, it's a topic that was on his mind throughout the summer months leading up to August's preseason camp.
Asked to describe the one or two things that would ultimately make the biggest impact on his team's ability to put together a successful season, the Nittany Lions' sophomore signal-caller circled a big necessity, then unknown.
"I think just seeing a big time playmaker emerge," he said. "Whoever it may be, just sort of see which guy really steps up and assumes that role outside of the backfield.
"Whether it be a tight end, whether it be a receiver, or even a running back, whoever it is, just see someone step up and be that big time explosive player on the outside. I think (that is) going to be important for us."
How that question resolves itself remains to be seen, but Penn State is not without its possibilities to help fulfill the need.
Though the loss of tight end Adam Breneman undoubtedly detracts from that mix - his 68-yard touchdown reception at Wisconsin marking the longest play of the 2013 season from scrimmage - the likes of Jesse James, Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, Kyle Carter, Akeel Lynch and wideout Geno Lewis all notched plays of 20 yards or more last season on the offensive side of the ball.
That said, specifically at wideout, Lewis is the only returning receiver among the group.
Truthfully, he said, he's got a knack for just such a thing.
"I've always been gifted at having big, big plays in high school and so far in college," Lewis said. "It always happened and I think that's a gift that God gave me and I'm happy with that."
Though Lewis finished his debut season in action with the Nittany Lions fourth on the team with 18 receptions for 234 yards and three touchdowns, he managed to make the most of them.
In fact, he made touchdown receptions of 59 yards at Wisconsin and 54 yards against Syracuse to go along with another 29-yard catch against the Badgers at the end of the season.
As Lewis tells it, his ability to come up with big plays dates back to high school, though it was also aided along by what Robinson brought to the receivers' room at the Lasch Building.
Said Lewis, "Coming out of high school, that was probably one of my best things coming out was going up to get the ball, but I also learned a lot from (Robinson) too, going up at the right time and the DB thinks he has it and then all of a sudden you come out of nowhere and grab it. Just watching people, you learn things and it helps with your game."
With Robinson gone, the biggest burden might fall to Lewis and the receivers, but not necessarily. Of the team's 47 plays of 20 or more yards from scrimmage last season, 36 were in the passing game - 18 of which went to Robinson - and 11 were rushes.
Certainly, the additions of redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton and true freshmen Chris Godwin, DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall should help alleviate the pressure of comping up with big receptions.
But, big plays aren't the only things Lewis is hoping to bring to the table this year.
Whether it's with Robinson's record-setting 97 catches in mind or not, the former star's big plays accounted for just 19 percent of his receptions and 708 of his 1,432 receiving yards on the year. In other words, stability and consistency are two things Lewis would also like to provide for Hackenberg.
"I also want to be able to show that I can do other things, short-yard routes and deep, mid, and I just want to be able to do everything," he said.
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