For Penn State's new No. 1 receiver, 'this is only the beginning'

Sep. 8—They call it "The Granddaddy of Them All" for a reason.

The Rose Bowl Game has been around since 1902. It ventured on through two World Wars and the Great Depression, becoming a national tradition in the face of changing times and societal highs and lows. Some of the biggest moments in college football history have been authored there. Many of the game's most storied players have made their name under its lights.

Nobody who did so, though, had a play quite like the one KeAndre Lambert-Smith made there in January.

The Penn State receiver hauled in an 88-yard touchdown reception against Utah in a 35-21 win by the Nittany Lions. It stands as the longest catch in Rose Bowl history, and nobody revels in that fact more than Lambert-Smith, who followed it up with another dominant performance in Penn State's season-opening win over West Virginia last Saturday.

The junior had four catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the No. 7 Nittany Lions' 38-15 win, setting the tone early with a 72-yard catch-and-run on their fourth play from scrimmage. It went down as a positive start in Lambert-Smith's quest to show he can be the true No. 1 receiver the Nittany Lions haven't had since Jahan Dotson left for the NFL following the 2021 season.

"I'm not gonna lie: I definitely felt like 'The Guy,'" Lambert-Smith said. "This is only the beginning."

Can one catch change the course of a career? Generally, that sort of snap-of-the-finger conversion doesn't happen in sports, coaches and players will say.

But, head coach James Franklin adds that one play can change a mindset.

Before that Rose Bowl performance, Lambert-Smith's career had more valleys than peaks. Once a four-star prospect, Lambert-Smith couldn't build off a solid 2021 last season. He started off the year with a four-catch effort against Purdue, which included a key second-half touchdown. But the inconsistency that plagued him his first two years in the program compounded after that.

He didn't have more than two catches in any of Penn State's next nine games, with missed time due to an injury mixed in. He only topped 26 receiving yards once in that span, and even an 83-yard performance in the regular-season finale against Michigan State didn't seem to inspire confidence of a turnaround.

The Rose Bowl sure did, though.

After that, teammates say Lambert-Smith took on a different attitude. He no longer acted like the little brother to the veterans; He took on the leadership role among a young group, and his performance in the spring and through preseason camp impressed those around him.

"He really took the next step this year," quarterback Drew Allar said. "I thought he was a lot more consistent this offseason with his approach to everything. He got a routine down."

That routine started in Pasadena, with a player who showed the world what he could do — and, along the way, said he proved to himself that he could do it.

"Confidence is a real thing, and it's a powerful thing," Franklin said of Lambert-Smith. "He is thriving academically. He is thriving as a football player. He earned the respect of the locker room and the coaching staff.

"It hasn't always been a smooth ride. But I think he's a really good example for a lot of guys that, if you trust a process and you keep working, at some point you're going to have that breakthrough moment. And it's going to turn for you."

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