Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bigger would be better for 2011 Lions (posted 10.4.11)

Why Go Small When You Can Go Big?
Bigger would be better (in this instance), and skill trumps speed

Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood did something amazing for Penn State football. The Holy Trio of small and swift receivers breathed new life into the PSU offense from 2005-2008. Ultimately, they helped the Lions to two Big Ten titles and BCS berths. PSU was 40-11 in their four seasons.

Unfortunately, the Holy Trio also might be responsible for the coaching staff's misguided infatuation with small and swift WR Devon Smith. What else could explain it?

Since his true freshman season of 2009 when he was on the kickoff return team from the get-go, the coaching staff has force-fed Smith into the gameplan, with little success. Smith, a 5-foot-7, 150-pound junior, should be utilized like a pungent spice - rarely. Moo-moo (his nickname) should be a no-no most of the time-time.

The lingering warm-fuzzy memories of the Holy Trio could be clouding the coaches' judgment of Smith. Because he pales compared with each of them.

Norwood had some of the best hands on the planet. Anyone who watched him calmly catch lightning-speed, rapid-fire passes launched from machines in a gimmicky, made-for-TV competition for possible NFL draft picks in the spring of 2009 can attest to his preternatural ball skills. (Or, of course, if you watched him play actual football for PSU.)

Williams, while relatively small, still had about 45 pounds on the feathery Smith, so he could break some tackles, and he had a knack for making the quick cut at the right time.

Butler had an amazing ability to smoothly adjust to the ball in the air.

All three, despite an average size of about 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, have been on NFL rosters.

Smith, unfortunately, has none of those skills. Just the small size and speed.
  • Williams' cutting ability? Nope. Michael Zordich's reaction said it all when Smith misread a reverse during Penn State's slugfest with Temple on Sept. 17. Zordich, the fullback, blocked the outside defender. The space was cleared for Smith to dash around Zordich and turn the corner for a nice gain. But Smith cut inside the block and was flattened. Zordich glanced at Smith on his backside, and his body language screamed "what the heck happened!?!" Against Alabama, Smith also failed to read his blocking properly on a reverse, took a big hit and fumbled. As far as breaking tackles goes, Smith tackles himself more often, his feet scurrying along cartoonishly, faster than his mind/body can keep up.
  • Butler's ability to adjust to the ball? Sure, the current crop of PSU QBs can be inaccurate, but Smith isn't helping them out. Passes seem to land near him a lot.
  • Norwood's hands? If it doesn't hit Smith in the belly, he may not catch it. The opening play against Alabama was tremendously deflating. Instead of running through Rob Bolden's beautiful deep ball to make the catch and possibly continuing on for a touchdown, Smith opted for the safer route and dove. Which was okay - as long as he corralled the ball, it was going to be a 40-yard gain. It skipped right through his hands. Huge opportunity missed.
Also don't underestimate the value of blocking for a WR. On at least half of all plays, WR blocking can be critical to the play. At 150 pounds with a propensity for falling down, Smith is an ineffective blocker.

So, Smith should be used very sparingly. An occasional crossing route, such as the one that led to his 71-yard TD vs. Eastern Michigan. An occasional comeback pass, after he has driven the DB several yards off of him. Perhaps on a reverse on a kickoff. Maybe a deep ball - if he shows he can catch such throws in practice.

Perhaps if Smith is only on the field for a few plays a half, he can occupy attention, or sneak over the middle on a crossing pattern. But when he's on the field regularly, the defense quickly figures out his limitations and can defend him.

But targeting him on slants near the goal line, as PSU did vs. Indiana? Good God No!

Less of Smith means more of Shawney Kersey and Curtis Drake. In limited action the 6-foot-1 Kersey has shown nearly the speed of Smith and much more skill - he has demonstrated noticeably superior receiving ability in fewer opportunities - along with more size to make him a bigger target. The redshirt sophomore is ripe for a bigger role, complementing Nos. 1 and 2 receivers Derek Moye and Justin Brown.

The 5-foot-10 Drake, also a redshirt sophomore, is still recuperating from injury and isn't ready for full-time duty. But he has shown the wherewithal to run reverses and play the slot receiver with aplomb. There is an increased role for him in Smith's place.

Smith's best contribution to PSU football might have been his inspiring The Onion to write the following "story," after Smith's preseason collision with Joe Paterno on the practice field put venerable JoePa on the disabled list: http://www.theonion.com/articles/penn-state-players-all-worried-theyre-going-to-be,21120/

(Onion excerpt: “At this point, it’s part of the Happy Valley tradition," (Jack) Crawford added. "No names on the jerseys, ringing the victory bell, and being very, very careful not to be the reason Coach Paterno dies.")

Smith is very fast but football is a game of skill, and speed is only one component of a receiver's skill set. Unlike the diminutive Holy Trio, Smith simply doesn't have the other skills to justify his playing time and involvement in the PSU offense.

JoePa, Galen, JayPa, Mike - bigger is better for the 2011 Lions.

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