Most football teams would be unable to recover from injuries to their top two returning receivers.
But then again, most teams don’t have the Quakers’ depth at wideout.
Junior Ryan Mitchell has been banged up the whole year with a sports hernia and senior Joe Holder broke his fibula against William & Mary.
As a result, young receivers have had to step up and offensive coordinator Jon McLaughlin has had to adjust his offensive strategy. Instead of having one new receiver emerge, the Quakers have filled in the holes with several new targets.
“Every year you have some injuries, and this year, that’s the position that’s been hit the most,” quarterback Billy Ragone said.
The Quakers knew of Mitchell’s injury coming into the season. He has been limited all year and has sat out the past game and a half.
Though the fast slot receiver has been missed on the outside, Ragone has enjoyed working with his replacement, junior Ty Taylor.
“Ty is a possession receiver, and he comes down with a lot of balls for us,” Ragone said. “With him on the outside, we have a nice pair of hands we can rely on.”
Taylor led the Quakers in receptions against Princeton on Saturday.
On the inside, Holder has primarily been replaced by Jason Seifert. Though the senior has just one catch this season, it was a big one — a 36-yard touchdown grab that helped push Penn past Brown to keep the Quakers alive in the Ivy title hunt.
“Seifert is a big physical receiver who has some speed and can make plays down the field,” Ragone said. “That combination is nice on the inside.”
The Quakers have also had young tight ends emerge as key red zone threats. Sophomores Ryan O’Malley and Mitchell King each have scores in Ivy games this season.
“We put a lot on their plate, and they’ve done a nice job stepping up and being the guy,” McLaughlin said.
However, the biggest surprise of the Quakers’ passing game has been the ability of the running backs to catch the ball out of the backfield. In fact, two of Penn’s top four pass catchers are running backs Lyle Marsh and Jeff Jack.
“Putting the ball in [Marsh’s and Jack’s] hands has taken some pressure off the revolving door with some of the receiving injuries,” McLaughlin said.
Marsh, who has lined up as a slot receiver many times this season, is tied for the team lead with Conner Scott with four receiving touchdowns.
The running back duo’s success catching the ball has given the Quakers the opportunity to run the ball more. In the past few weeks, they have reasserted themselves as a run-first team, carrying the ball 47 times for 211 yards against Princeton.
“We came into the season thinking we were going to pass the ball a little bit more,” McLaughlin said. But since Yale, he explained, the team has “taken a long hard look in the mirror as to what our identity is.”
Ragone agrees that the Quakers need a more balanced attack.
“We’ve got to be balanced and be able to take advantage of situations where we’d have to run or throw,” he said.
One of the biggest determinants of the Quakers’ offensive strategy will be who is available at receiver. While McLaughlin has declared Holder out for this weekend’s game against Harvard, he is optimistic that Mitchell will return.
“He’s a football kid, he’s a tough kid, he wants to play,” McLaughlin said. “He’ll be out there.”
The effectiveness of Mitchell and the rest of Penn’s offensive weapons will be critical Saturday against the Crimson’s top-ranked defense as the teams battle for sole possession of first place in the league.