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Penn State football: breaking down the Nittany Lions’ new wide receivers coach

James Franklin and Penn State football have a new wide receivers coach. Let’s break down the hire and what it means for PSU.



Apr 23, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin leads his players out of the team tunnel prior to the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday morning, James Franklin officially announced the hire of University of Virginia wide receivers coach Marques Hagans as Penn State’s new receivers coach and offensive recruiting coordinator. The decision comes eight days after parting ways with Taylor Stubblefield, who was with Penn State football for three seasons.

A mainstay at Virginia, the move grabbed headlines as Franklin was able to lure Hagans away from his alma mater.

“He is a veteran coach, whose experiences playing both quarterback and wide receiver at the highest levels will bring tremendous value to our program,” Franklin said of the hire. “Marques has a proven track record of developing receivers throughout his career and has worked alongside many coaches I respect. Marques is a relationship-based leader, whose family values align with the culture of Penn State football. We are thrilled to welcome Marques, his wife, Lauren, and sons, Christopher and Jackson to Happy Valley.”

“Drop” in production

Penn State’s wide receivers experienced a significant step back in 2022. Stubblefield experienced great success with Jahan Dotson in 2021. Dotson led the Nittany Lions with 91 receptions for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Parker Washington took the mantle in 2022 but did not experience Dotson’s level of success as the primary wide receiver. Washington caught 46 passes for 611 yards and two scores in 2022. While he missed the final three games due to injury, that was still a considerable decline from 2021.

However, the entire receiver room struggled in 2022. Total receptions from receivers decreased by 40, from 200 in 2021 to 160 in 2022. As a result, receiving yards declined by over 600 yards (2,676 in 2021 to 2,048 in 2022) and touchdowns dropped by seven (20 to 13).

The fall in production was undoubtedly due to a change in opportunity. As Penn State’s running attack – led by Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen – took off in 2022, the need for the receivers to carry the offense subsided. Stubblefield’s receivers had over 300 targets in 2021, compared to less than 250 this year.

But Nittany Lion receivers didn’t always capitalize when their numbers were called. According to PFF, Penn State’s receivers had 10 dropped passes in 2021. In essence, this equates to one dropped ball every 30 passes. This past season, the receivers dropped 16 passes. This doesn’t seem significant initially, but accounting for the decline in targets, this comes out to one drop every 15 passes – half that of the prior year.

There are also aspects of the game that are more difficult to measure. The receivers struggled to get open in critical situations for stretches this season. This was most evident in the deep passing game, where the Lions struggled to develop consistency.

Whatever you pinpoint as the reason for the drop in production in 2022, it ultimately fell at the feet of Taylor Stubblefield. And – for better or worse – it’ll be up to Hagans to fix it.

Leaving home

Hagans has spent nearly two decades as both a player and a coach for Virginia. A four-year letterman, Hagans currently ranks seventh on Virginia’s all-time total offense list with 5,779 in his career.

After a five-year NFL career, Hagans rejoined the UVA staff in 2011 as a graduate assistant. Promoted to wide receivers coach in 2013, Hagans has coached ten of the 15 receivers on Virginia’s career receptions list. This included currently Atlanta Falcon Olamide Zaccheaus, whose 2,753 career receiving yards ranks second in school history.

In 2021, the Cavaliers were the only school in the nation with five different receivers with at least 500 receiving yards. Most recently, Hagans guided Keytaon Thompson to third-team All-ACC honors this fall, where he finished the season 12th in the nation with 6.6 receptions per game.

Overall, this hire is impressive for Franklin, as he was able to lure Hagans away from a school where his roots run deep. Additionally, Hagans will bring deep ties to Virginia recruiting to Happy Valley, an area which has been critically important for James Franklin’s recruiting classes in the past.

Penn State Football Has a Solid Foundation

Hagans will not have to start from scratch in 2023. Several players in Penn State’s receiver room could be poised for a breakout next fall.

KeAndre Lambert-Smith made his opening arguments to be the Nittany Lions’ next leading receiver in the Rose Bowl. Lambert-Smith had three catches for 124 yards, including the longest touchdown pass in Rose Bowl history.

Lambert-Smith finished the year with 389 yards and four scores. He possesses the raw speed and ability to be a star next year. Still, he will need to develop consistency this off-season.

There is also potential among some of the younger receivers on Penn State’s roster. Harrison Wallace III had a respectable redshirt freshman season, where he caught 19 passes for 273 yards and one touchdown. Omari Evans only had 55 yards in his true freshman season but flashed with a nice deep touchdown against Ohio. In addition, freshmen Kaden Saunders and Anthony Ivey redshirted in 2022 but were both highly touted recruits out of high school and could be ready to take the next step in 2023.

The newest addition to Penn State’s receiver room could also be the biggest breakout star. Last week, Kent State transfer Dante Cephas announced his commitment to the Nittany Lions. Cephas caught 48 receptions for 746 yards and three scores for Kent State in 2022, a year after recording 1,240 yards and nine touchdowns. He had offers from every Power Five school the Golden Flashes faced in 2022, including the back-to-back national champion Georgia Bulldogs.

Cephas was the splash in the transfer portal that Penn State football needed to make at receiver this offseason. Cephas adds instant production to the Nittany Lion offense. Hagan’s first task will be to maximize his skillset next fall.

Of course, Hagan’s task should be made easier by who he has throwing the ball to his receivers. We saw Mike Yurcich’s offense lead the way to Penn State’s emphatic Rose Bowl win. But now, Drew Allar has the potential to take Penn State’s offense to new heights. If Yurcich and Hagans can get the most out of this receiver room, the Nittany Lions could have a historic offense in 2023.

Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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