Opinion: Penn State needs help at wide receiver and here's why

Apr. 12—Penn State might as well put up a Help Wanted sign for wide receivers.

Matt Zenitz of 247 Sports reported Friday that KeAndre Lambert-Smith has been away from the team this week, the final week of spring football practice, and that he's strongly considering entering the transfer portal.

Lambert-Smith led the Nittany Lions last season with 53 receptions for 673 yards and four touchdowns, but he caught just two passes in the final four games.

He has cleared out his locker room at Lasch Building, a source told the Reading Eagle. He has not been available for interviews since early November.

The news came one day before the annual Blue-White Game Saturday at 2 p.m. (TV-Big Ten Network) at Beaver Stadium.

"I think he's had a good spring," Penn State coach James Franklin said two weeks ago about Lambert-Smith. "He's shown some real flashes. I'm seeing them on a more consistent basis. I think Coach K (new offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki) has done a really good job with him as well.

"Obviously we need him to have a big year and expect him to have a big year."

The position was a sore spot last season for Penn State. Lambert-Smith was the only wide receiver to finish with more than 22 receptions. In the Lions' final four games, wideouts caught just 20 passes.

Penn State brought in former Southern Columbia star Julian Fleming from Ohio State to add depth to the position and to provide leadership, which sources said the room lacked last year.

"The whole group has improved," Franklin said last month. "I would still like to see a group of guys really separate themselves from the pack. I think we need more of that."

If that sounds familiar, it's because he expressed very similar sentiments many times last year during spring practice and preseason camp. His remarks wound up being a portent of things to come.

Penn State does not have a receiver from its 2020-23 recruiting classes that has emerged as an elite player at that position. Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace III are the closest, but Lambert-Smith has been hampered by inconsistency and Wallace by injuries. Wallace made 19 catches for 228 yards and one touchdown in eight games last year.

"Tre (Wallace) has always been kind of super athletic," Franklin said last month. "Losing him for a period of time (because of a leg injury) hurt us. He's one of those guys we've viewed as a starter for a while now."

Lambert-Smith, who was a four-star recruit from Norfolk, Va., was effective as a complementary receiver alongside Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington in 2021 and Washington and Mitchell Tinsley in 2022. He got off to a strong start last season before fading.

Several sources said that Lambert-Smith became unhappy as the season progressed. There was speculation that he might transfer after he did not catch a pass against Mississippi in the Peach Bowl and was targeted just once.

Now all signs are pointing toward him going elsewhere, which would leave the Lions without a wide receiver who caught more than the 26 passes last year, the number Fleming had at Ohio State.

It seems unlikely that a top-flight wideout would be available through the transfer portal between now and the start of preseason camp in August.

Lambert-Smith's apparent departure couldn't have caught Franklin and his staff off guard, which begs the question why the Lions didn't pursue wide receivers more vigorously when the portal window was open in December and early January.

"I didn't really feel like we needed to go out and do a whole lot in the transfer portal," Franklin said last month on the first day of spring practice. "But we needed to make sure we had enough competition at every single position to bring out the best in those guys."

He said then that he and his staff "anticipate and fully expect" some of the veteran receivers "to take the next step."

That remains to be seen. Penn State's hopes to reach the expanded College Football Playoff depend on it.