Penn State led by three of a kind

October, 23, 2008
10/23/08
12:20
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

You don't coach a team for 43 years without being dealt some good cards, particularly at the wide receiver position.

Joe Paterno has seen several standouts pass through Penn State, including Biletnikoff Award winner Bobby Engram and All-Americans Kenny Jackson and O.J. McDuffie. He has even had some standout receiver pairs (Engram and Freddie Scott, Jackson and Gregg Garrity).

But before 2005, the 81-year-old had never received a hand that included three of a kind.

That was the year Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood began starting for the Nittany Lions. Four seasons later, the three wideouts remain the pillars of the Penn State passing game.

"We've had two at different times, but I don't think we've ever had three that are quite like these three are, who have played so much and so long and who have made so many plays," Paterno said. "They're like a band of brothers."

The record-setting wideouts are capping their careers in historic fashion as No. 3 Penn State continues its quest for a national title Saturday night at No. 9 Ohio State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

Butler needs six receptions to pass Engram and become Penn State's all-time receptions leader. Williams has more touchdowns on kick returns than any Penn State player during Paterno's tenure. On Sept. 27, he became the first player under JoePa to record a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a kick return touchdown in the same game.

Norwood is tied with Williams for third place on the school's career receptions list with 142.

For the third consecutive season, Penn State is on pace to have three different receivers catch 40 or more passes, a milestone that hadn't been reached until Butler, Williams and Norwood did it in 2006.

"It's been a long road already," Norwood said. "We've kind of grown up together."

The three players gravitated toward each other almost immediately, despite taking different paths to Penn State. Williams arrived as the nation's consensus No. 1 recruit, a warp-speed receiver/return man from Greenbelt, Md., who would ignite the Penn State offense.

Simply making the team was a challenge for Butler, a walk-on defensive back who switched to wideout in the spring of 2005. Then there was Norwood, the coach's kid, whose father, Brian, worked with Penn State's safeties from 2001-07 before becoming Baylor's defensive coordinator.

The three personalities form a "little spectrum," Norwood said, with Norwood the quietest, Butler the most outgoing and Williams somewhere in the middle. But when they lived together along with fellow wideout Justin King as freshmen, they immediately clicked.

"These guys all know the game," Paterno said. "They're helping each other all the time. They've stayed together for four years. It's fun to watch them, even in practice."

The qualities they shared seemed likely to drive them apart, at least on the depth chart.

All three receivers are somewhat undersized. Williams is hardly a giant at 6-foot and 199 pounds, but he looks like one next to both Norwood (5-foot-11, 171) and Butler (5-foot-10, 170).

In most cases, three smallish receivers would be competing for one or maybe two starting spots alongside some 6-foot-5 hulk who can outjump defensive backs for passes. But not at Penn State.

"A lot of fans all the time talk about, 'You need a tall guy or a dominant receiver,'" Butler said. "We always haven't been the most prototypical, but we've been able to produce and we've all fed off each other.

"We can't really control our heights and weights. We've got to blame our parents for that. That's about it. But we went out and continued to play football, and I think we've done a great job."

If anything, the wideouts' comparable physiques created more unity than turmoil or jealousy.

"It definitely helps us out because all the tips that we give each other," Butler said. "As opposed to a Brett Brackett [the sophomore wideout who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 235 pounds], we ask him, 'How do you get off the jam on this guy?' Whereas he'll probably just say, 'Punch him right in the side of the head and muscle someone,' that really doesn't really help me and Jordan out. We don't have the same qualities."

The also lacked the same expectations, at least from the outside.

Williams was pegged as an All-American and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate as soon as he got to State College. Filling a Reggie Bush-like role as a true freshman, Williams had six plays of 20 yards or more and averaged 11.7 yards per touch before breaking his arm against Michigan.

He had solid, if not spectacular numbers in 2006 and 2007 but only seems to be reaching his peak this year, partly because Penn State tweaked its offense.

"When I came out, I definitely saw myself as a three-and-out guy," said Williams, referring to the his NFL prospects. "Some things didn't work out in my favor. I just had to rethink things and try to take it one step at a time."

Williams' response has impressed Norwood.

"Unfortunately, with injuries and things, his aspirations have been postponed, if anything," Norwood said. "He'll have his chance at the next level and he's done a great job of adjusting since his injury and trying to stick it through."

Butler, meanwhile, came to Penn State with little fanfare but has been the steadiest of the three. He led the team in receptions in 2005 and 2006 and topped the receiving yards chart last season.

The walk-on label remains with him, but he doesn't mind it.

"It definitely makes the story a lot better," he said. "A kid that didn't have a scholarship and has accomplished all the things I have. You can't really get mad at that."

Norwood was a familiar face around the program, and his roots in the game accelerated his development.

"A lot of things came pretty easy to me as far as just learning football, reading coverages, all the film work and scouting reports that we do each week," he said. "It's almost second nature."

The same can be said for playing alongside the other wideouts.

Butler (41) and Williams (40) own more career starts than any other Penn State players, and Norwood has three starts in each of the last four seasons. They have been through three starting quarterbacks -- Michael Robinson, Anthony Morelli and Daryll Clark -- and witnessed the highs and lows of the program since 2005.

"They've been doing it for their whole careers," said Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team faced the three receivers last week. "You're talking about guys that have made plays since the day they got on campus. ... It's a veteran group, and they play like it."

Added Purdue coach Joe Tiller: "Those three wide receivers have been starting at Penn State for seven or eight years, it seems like."

Norwood isn't concerned about the group's legacy right now, not with Ohio State coming up and a national championship to chase. But he recognizes that the experience he has shared with Butler and Williams doesn't happen often in college football and particularly at Penn State.

"It has been cool to grow up together on and off the field and learn together," Norwood said. "This is something that we'll remember for the rest of our lives."

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