Kaden Saunders was one of the top-rated players in Penn State’s 2022 recruiting class and considered a potential game-breaking wide receiver.
After seeing limited action last season and being redshirted, Saunders appears to be making a move on the depth chart.
He caught two passes for 19 yards in the Nittany Lions’ 30-13 victory over Illinois last weekend and saw playing time ahead of such receivers as Omari Evans and Dante Cephas, who were thought to be ahead of him.
“It’s been really great to see Kaden’s growth,” tight end Theo Johnson said. “He’s a guy who works really hard. He’s constantly in the facility doing extra work and pushing to have a bigger role. It’s good to see things are starting to fall into place for him.”
The 5-10, 175-pound Saunders did not win a starting position at wide receiver coming out of preseason camp, but he did earn the job as Penn State’s punt returner.
He has seven returns for 46 yards, but more importantly he has fielded every punt cleanly.
“I think the way he catches the ball right now as a punt returner is one of those things that no one’s talking about,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “That’s underappreciated. Catching the ball in traffic the way he is doing with such confidence and such poise there’s a ton of value in that.”
Saunders made his first catch of the season for 10 yards in the third quarter vs. Illinois. A few minutes later, he took an inside screen, made a nice move and picked up 9 yards at the start of a 70-yard touchdown drive.
“For him to be as young as he is and to be doing as well as he is, shows how much confidence he has,” quarterback Drew Allar said. “I think that’s transferring to the offensive side of the ball, where he’s playing fast and loose and confident.
“I’m very excited for him. He’s definitely playing at a high level.”
Penalty issue: Penn State has committed 14 penalties for 125 yards in its last two games against Illinois and Delaware after having just one for 5 yards against West Virginia.
The Nittany Lions had two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties at Illinois, one each committed by wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith and defensive tackle Dvon Ellies, both veteran players.
Lambert-Smith’s dead-ball penalty turned a third-and-2 at the Illinois 20 into a third-and-17. Penn State’s drive ended with the Illini blocking Alex Felkins’ 52-yard field goal try in the second quarter.
Ellies’ penalty came after Chop Robinson tackled running back Josh McCray for a 2-yard loss. Instead of second-and-12 from its 22, Illinois had a first down at its 38 in the first quarter.
“I don’t really like any penalties,” Franklin said, “but specifically the ones we focus on the most are the pre-snap penalties, which to me are focus penalties, and the post-snap penalties, which are discipline penalties.
“We gotta eliminate the penalties.”
White Out history: Saturday will be the 15th full-stadium White Out Game at Penn State since the first one against Notre Dame in 2007 and the 19th overall, including four just for the student section.
The Lions are 10-8 in all White Out Games and 8-6 in full-stadium White Outs, including three straight wins. It’s the first time Iowa is the visiting team for a White Out since the Hawkeyes beat Penn State 21-10 in 2009.
“There’s nothing like the White Out, for sure, in all of sports,” Allar said. “We’re all going to take it in as a team, but we’re not going to let that distract us from what we’re supposed to do. We have to go out on the field and handle business first.”
Honorary captains: Quarterback Trace McSorley and cornerback Grant Haley, who played prominent roles in Penn State’s 2016 Big Ten championship, will serve as honorary captains Saturday night.
Northwestern game set: Penn State’s Sept. 30 game at Northwestern has been scheduled for a noon kickoff and will be televised by Big Ten Network.