The transfer portal doesn’t officially open until December 4, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of players from diving through head-first. So far, not many have committed, but the commitments are starting to trickle in.
Last season, James Franklin added seven transfers along with his 14th-ranked recruiting class. Franklin has won 10 games in back-to-back years and has the Nittany Lions right on the cusp of retaking the Big Ten, but Penn State needs an immediate influx of talent to take the next step.
Next year, Drew Allar will be a junior and if he has a great season, it could be his last in Happy Valley. On Thursday, Penn State hired Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki as its next OC. While that is almost certain to improve things, freshmen aren’t going to get this team over the hump, at least not right away. A few impact transfers might be a different story.
These are the positions of need for the 2024 Nittany Lions and a few of the top transfers that Franklin should target.
We have to start at wide receiver, because it’s the most obvious position of need for this Penn State team, on either side of the ball. Penn State ranked 90th in passing offense and only 58% of its receiving yards actually came from wide receivers. Leading receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith made 53 grabs for 673 yards and four touchdowns, and he’ll almost certainly be back in 2024.
Franklin tried to address this issue before last season with the addition of former Kent State receiver Dante Cephas in the transfer portal. Cephas was a bit of a disappointment with only 22 catches for 246 yards and two touchdowns. He also only averaged 3.7 yards after the catch per reception, which was a big problem for the whole team.
Penn State only managed 25 passing plays over 20 yards all season, which ranked 118th out of 133 teams. Drew Allar needed to be more aggressive pushing the ball downfield, but a big piece of the lack of production was the lack of explosiveness after the catch. The Nittany Lions can fix this with a new offensive coordinator and the addition of one of these top receivers in the transfer portal.
Mitchell had a breakout season at FIU this year and after four seasons in Miami, he is ready to transfer with two years of eligibility left. He’s clearly looking for a step up and maybe the Big Ten is perfect after a season with 64 grabs for 1,118 yards and seven touchdowns. He was 13th in the country in receiving yards.
Maybe the biggest part of his appeal is that he’s a big play threat downfield for Allar. At 6-foot-1 175 pounds he has enough size and averaged 17.5 yards per reception this season. His average depth of target was 13.8 yards downfield, but he also averaged 7.1 YAC/reception. Lambert-Smith led Penn State and only averaged 6.3 YAC/reception.
Can Franklin pull talent from a fellow Big Ten team? He should try to pry McCulley away from Indiana. This year, Allar didn’t trust his receivers to make contest catches and that’s part of why he didn’t take shots downfield. Among wide receivers, Lambert-Smith had the most contest catch targets with 11 and hauled in five.
The 6-foot-5 200-pound McCulley received 15 contest catch targets and came down with 10 of them. The quarterback situation at Indiana wasn’t very stable this year, but Brendan Sorsby, a true freshman settled into the role, and McCulley’s ability to turn a 50/50 ball into a 66% proposition was pretty helpful.
He finished the season with 644 yards and six touchdowns on 48 catches.
Ja’Mori Maclin (North Texas)
Here’s another example of a receiver at a lower level who had a breakout season and is ready to move up to one of the best teams in the country. Maclin is another example of a deep threat, who isn’t as effective after the catch, but he does it with speed, not size.
Maclin finished the year 23rd in the country in receiving yards with 1,008 on 57 catches for an average of 17.6 yards per reception. Only 348 of those yards came after the catch, an average of 6.1 yards after the catch per reception. So, most of his big plays came because of his 15.9 average depth of target. Last year, 34% of his targets and 507 of his receiving yards came on throws that traveled over 20 yards downfield in the air. Drew Allar was last in the country in percentage of throws of 20 or more air yards.
Penn State even offered Maclin, among a loaded list of other Power-5 teams interested in his services.