Bigger roles in 2014 for two of the Lions’ better players

Two of most Penn State’s most talented offensive players will have to play much bigger roles this fall if the team is going to overcome so many key losses.

Receiver Geno Lewis might not be able to replace All-American Allen Robinson, but he’ll be counted on to pick up much of the slack as the No. 1 wideout.

Then there’s left tackle Donovan Smith, the only returning starter on an offensive line that has major question marks. Smith entered last season with tons of hype, but he didn’t exactly have a strong year, so he will have to up his game if he wants to live up to his huge potential.

“Everybody can play better individually,” said Smith, who started all last year but found himself getting benched occasionally for shaky play. “I’m just going to take my errors from last year, correct them and hold my own during the offseason to make sure hopefully it doesn’t show up again.

“I look at old game films and look at whether my kick or my hands or something got me in trouble that particular play, and I’m working on it.”

Smith (6-foot-5, 322 pounds) has perfect size for a left tackle, the kind of size that could make him a lot of money in the NFL someday. But last year he committed too many untimely penalties and played too inconsistently for someone with his potential.

This year, with such uncertainty on the offensive line, the redshirt junior’s role as a leader will be much more significant.

“I’m very comfortable,” he said of that responsibility. “It’s kind of like anything in life, if something happens you’ve got to move forward and fill the shoes. It’s an honor to be an upperclassman and a guy who’s been here for a while and a go-to guy for the younger guys to come to.”

The offensive line took a big blow when guard Miles Dieffenbach suffered an ACL injury earlier this spring. That could keep him out the entire season.

Defensive linemen Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey have been moved over to guard to help the depth on the line, and Smith said the unit “made a lot of progress” this spring.

The linemen also know full well that most people consider their unit one of the biggest question marks on the team, something coach James Franklin also has addressed.

Smith said the second guessers only serve as motivation.

“I know since I’ve been playing, it’s been always something about the offensive line and how they’re going to do it and so on and so forth,” Smith said. “It’s just extra motivation because there’s nothing like people who have no faith in you or don’t really think you can do it, and you go out there and prove every single body wrong.”

Lewis finished third among PSU’s wideouts in receptions last year with 18, but that’s light years away from Robinson’s school-record 97 catches. Brandon Felder (28 catches) also is gone, so Lewis will be counted on as Hackenberg’s primary target, among the receivers at least (there also are several very talented tight ends).

Lewis had 234 receiving yards and three touchdowns, two of which came in the season finale against Wisconsin, including a 59-yard score.

A redshirt sophomore, Lewis said he learned a great deal paying close attention to Robinson.

“He’s a really, really good route runner,” Lewis said. “He’s somebody I actually paid attention to and I watched film on. I also watched just how he made plays also, and I just realized at some I’m going to be in that position. And I want to.”

A big part of being able to fill a bigger role is embracing that opportunity and not seeing it as extra pressure. Lewis understands those elements.

“I’ve had pressure since high school, and at this point it’s just a thing,” he said. “I’m happy to be in this position, in a higher position from last year, and I’m ready and I’m pretty confident of going out there and making more plays and helping my team get wins.”

Lewis also learned from Robinson “how calm you have to be” and that, in order to make big plays, a receiver “can’t get rattled even when things go wrong.” Robinson came through with numerous clutch grabs the past two years – most notably a highlight-reel, leaping catch at the goal line last year against Michigan — and now he’s getting ready for an NFL career.

Part of the process for Lewis to step into a bigger role is developing a strong rapport with Christian Hackenberg, making sure the quarterback knows he can trust him when it matters most. The two have been working on that this spring and will continue to do so throughout the summer.

The receiver and quarterback will talk about what they saw after plays in practice, building the kind of communication necessary to grow trust on the field.

“Especially [with] Allen and Brandon leaving, I had to step up into another role,” Lewis said, “so I had to make sure we’re on the same page because I knew going into the spring I’d be one of his top receivers.”