Resuming developmental process, Nittany Lions' passing game aims higher
Among the 13 receivers on Penn State’s roster this spring, one commonality has proven especially important.
More than a year since the introduction of Taylor Stubblefield as the group’s newest assistant coach, replacing Gerad Parker, who replaced David Corley in 2019, who replaced Josh Gattis in 2018, a modicum of stability has arrived. And, with each of Penn State’s spring participants at receiver now having practiced and learned from Stubblefield for all of that time, the differences from a year ago are marked.
“Last year it was kind of learning my style, me learning them, teaching some of the foundational things that you find very important in wide receiver play,” Stubblefield said. “You're having to teach that. You're having to walk through it… With the guys that we have right now in spring ball, you're now trying to master it. You're trying to perfect the craft on, a single jab, a double jab, the foundation of the releases, what we're doing with our express steps. How can we use (the tools in our toolbox) the way that they need to be used?
“So yeah, it is different. It's not just them hearing it for the first time. Now they've heard it for a whole season and now is the opportunity for them to try to perfect it.”
For Penn State’s passing game, the opportunity couldn’t come at a more urgent moment.
Though the Nittany Lions finished with the 40th-ranked passing offense in college football last season, averaging 256.0 yards per game, quarterback Sean Clifford’s nine interceptions were among the most in the game. His 60.6 completion percentage was a slight improvement on a 2019 effort that saw him complete 59 percent of his passes, but at 7.5 yards per completion, the Nittany Lions’ explosiveness in the passing game also took a step back.
Welcoming new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to the fold, architect to some of the most prolific passing offenses in the game in recent seasons, Clifford is poised to return to a role closer to his debut season over one in which he rushed the ball 99 times in just nine games last year. Maybe more important, he’ll have a collection of receivers at his disposal with whom he has built a rapport, standing in direct contrast to the circumstances of 2020.
“I really didn't get to meet the (freshmen) or throw to them until fall camp because we were separated because of COVID, and then we were in different camps, and then we were practicing differently, and we had to just deal with so many things,” Clifford said. “It's funny, I went back and watched, the first time that I threw to Parker was two weeks before the first game. (That) was the first time that I got a bunch of reps with him.
“It makes you appreciate this time now, even more. It makes you appreciate getting in with them in the summer. And I think that the guys realize that now, including myself. I think that everybody understands now, every single day that we come in, we got to work, and we got to make sure that we're improving on something. And I think that it was taken for granted before but I'll assure you now that it is not being taken for granted right now.”
As Clifford would go on to explain, the most problematic element of his on-field relationship with his receivers came in the timing of the corrections process.
Unable to go through Kirk Ciarrocca’s new offensive installation in spring practices, and unable to work out the kinks therein, Clifford and the Nittany Lions found themselves fixing their mistakes for the first time in the aftermath of games.
“You're gonna mess up, and it's nice to be able to mess up in a practice and then break down the film and be like, hey this is why you should have done this, or he should break his route here, we need to hit the hole here,” Clifford said. “Last year, that was after the Indiana game, that was after the Ohio State game, we were going over these new things that just come up.
“It hurt us in the beginning, as it did a lot of teams, but us not having spring ball, it taught me a lot about preparation and what you need to do from a personal level and a team level to get ready for a game. So yeah, I think that spring ball is this critical in the development of myself and my teammates, especially the younger guys, and just the chemistry of the whole team.”
From the vantage point of the team’s top returning receiver, Jahan Dotson, that process is now very much in full swing this spring.
Noting his excitement to see the likes of Malick Meiga, Jaden Dottin, Daniel George, Cam Sullivan-Brown, and Norval Black in game action, Dotson said the improved depth has demonstrated its progress by the plays made in practice each day.
“What I see every day on the practice field is unbelievable, just because now that they're getting comfortable within the program and getting comfortable within college football, they're realizing the speed of the game,” Dotson said. “That's like a big key when you're a young guy. You have all the talent in the world, but you have to get comfortable, you have to just keep playing and keep playing, and they've been doing that. Those guys are making some remarkable plays, and I just can't wait to see them display it in the fall.”
Stubblefield shares in that anticipation.
Unrelenting in his approach to the strides necessary to be made every day through the formality of spring practices and even those afterward through the summer months, Stubblefield’s expectation is matched by a determination to see that process come to fruition in the coming days, weeks, and months.
“We want to have some more depth,” he said. “It's going to be exciting to continue to see these guys grow and get better so that when somebody else does come in the game, that there's not a big drop off, or that there is no drop off; that's the goal.”
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