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Receivers aim to add 'sauce' to Penn State's offense

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Put a little sauce on it, Josh Gattis likes to tell his young group of Penn State receivers.

That’s how the second-year Nittany Lions assistant describes the next step in the maturation of his room full of burgeoning depth and talent. After an introductory year of preaching fundamentals and teaching a new playbook, Gattis asked his players this spring to start adding their own personal flavor to the routes they are running.

“You eat a plain hot dog, and it’s good. But you put some sauce on that? It makes it better,” Gattis explains. “Not everybody’s release or route may look the same. You may have something you can do on a guy that works, but I may not be able to do it. That’s the sauce. I’m starting to see some guys create some identity to them, and that’s what elite receivers have.”

Whatever you call it -- sauce, a unique identity, swagger -- it’s not an attitude that has been found on the menu very often in the past at Penn State. One of the most steak-and-potato operations in college football, traditionally speaking, is showing the first signs of a team taking on the identity of its new coaching staff in at least one position group.

James Franklin says he wants to build the fastest team in the Big Ten. The scholarship limits he inherited when he brought his staff to Happy Valley a year ago made that impossible in their first season. A quick look around at spring practice reveals that the sanctions lifted this fall still are taking their toll on Penn State’s depth in most places. But the speed-first attitude has made the wide receivers the first group arguably restored to full strength. Franklin and Gattis aren’t shy about the expectations that come with that status.

“We don’t lack confidence. That’s one thing we’ll never lack here in our room,” Gattis said. “We want to be the best receivers in the Big Ten. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are and that we will be. … It’s a new future for receivers here at Penn State.”

Confidence comes before the sauce, which is why last September’s fast start was a crucial turning point for Gattis’s inexperienced pack of pass-catchers. Last year at wide receiver the Nittany Lions relied almost exclusively on three rookies and “veteran” Geno Lewis, who had 18 career catches going into his redshirt sophomore season in 2014. Lewis and redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton finished September among the league’s top five players in every major receiving category. The production stalled midseason -- largely due to an exposed and struggling line -- but the bar at receiver already had been set high.

It’s higher this year with Lewis and Hamilton both returning along with sophomores Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin. Blacknall (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) provides a deep-ball threat and more. Godwin, who had seven catches for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl, had a strong spring season and might be the best all-around receiver on the roster before 2015 is over.

Three more freshmen arrive this summer to challenge the likes of redshirt freshman DeAndre Thompkins and fifth-year senior Matt Zanellato for a spot in the extensive rotation that Gattis hopes to use in the fall. All of them have the benefit of catching balls thrown by one of the strongest arms in college football attached to quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has played an important role in attracting the depth the Nittany Lions now having in the passing game.

“It was a different feel to the receiving corps when I got here,” said Zanellato, who was part of the final class recruited to State College by Joe Paterno. “(Former All-AmericanAllen Robinson) was the focal point of the passing game. The defense kind of knew where you were coming at them. You knew when you needed a big chunk play where the ball was probably going. Now we can hit them with six or seven different guys that can make a play.”

That kind of passing attack isn’t novel just in Zanellato’s time at Penn State. The school long known for churning out linebackers and running backs has rarely had more than one go-to receiving threat during a long and successful history on the football field. Hamilton, who led the team with 82 catches in his debut season last year, already is among the top 20 receivers in program history. Lewis (73 career catches) isn’t far behind at No. 24. With an identical year in 2015, Hamilton would leap all the way to fourth all-time in career receptions.

Hamilton, perhaps more than anyone else in the group, loaded up on sauce this spring. The redshirt sophomore said his comfort level is light years ahead of where he was last season after missing almost all of his first spring on campus and with the new staff while recovering from a wrist injury.

“Last year our minds were all scrambled trying to learn the offense,” Hamilton said. “Coming into this spring everybody knows what they’re doing. You could tell. Coaches had to be a lot more understanding with us last year.”

That certainly wasn’t the case this spring. Gattis said he has to work on spending more time complimenting his group, still dominated by underclassmen, in the future rather than picking apart minute mistakes even after a successful play. His receivers called him a “pusher” for whom “good is never good enough.”

It’s all part of the cockiness Gattis and Penn State’s coaches are hoping to instill in the growing receiver corps. That attitude attracts more talent at what is stereotypically one of the more brash positions on the field. They are at the beginning of establishing what they hope will be a new brand of offense focused on speed. Starting with the receivers, Penn State is adding a little zing.