Penn State Special Teams Must Improve In 2010


I've been very vocal about downplaying the impending Penn State quarterback disaster that many people are predicting and instead pointing at the offensive line as the main area of concern. But another area where Penn State absolutely has to improve this year is on special teams.

Collin Wagner took a good portion of the heat for the special teams follies last year. His stat line wasn't impressive, but it wasn't horrible.

 

Made-Att

Pct.

0-19

20-29

30-39

40-49

50-99

Long

Collin Wagner

15-22

68.2

1-1

10-11

3-5

1-4

0-1

47

It was pretty obvious by midseason that Joe Paterno didn't have much confidence in Wagner. Unless it was the end of a half, Penn State rarely attempted a field goal over 40 yards. The Daily Collegian Footblog points out today that Wagner has been working hard on extending his range this year.

After admitting his nerves never settled down until after the fourth game of last season, Wagner's in a different situation this year. With a full year of experience and new-found confidence under his belt, the senior entered the summer with just one goal.

"I put a lot of emphasis on leg strength this winter and summer," Wagner said. "As far as all that goes, I'm hoping to extend my range a little bit, a few yards maybe."

While he's hoping to be able to nail field goals from 51 to 53 yards, he said so far his improved leg strength has shown. Though he's worked on his own, since none of the football coaches can be around if a football is out, Wagner said he's been hitting from 55 and 56 yards.

Take a look at these numbers from last year and die a little bit inside.

If true, this is a very good sign. But I'm willing to live with a kicker that can't make anything over 45 yards as long as he's automatic inside of 45 yards. At least you know what you're getting there and you can game plan around it.

However, there was no game planning around the rest of Penn State's special teams. Take a look at these numbers from 2009 and die a little bit inside like I did.

Penn State Special Teams Yards National Rank
Net Punting 31.71 114
Punt Returns 4.97 106
Punt Return Defense 15.40 117
Kickoff Returns 19.18 107
Kickoff Return Defense 21.78 64

People, that is some suck of historical proportions right there. When Penn State traded punts with their opponents, the Nittany Lions typically lost between 10 to 20 yards of field position in the deal. The special teams consistently handicapped the offense and defense on numerous occassions. This has got to change in 2010.

So this is the part where I polish the turd and tell you everything is going to be alright.

(churp....churp....churp...)

Folks, I wish I could point to something positive to say here, but it's hard to see much that has changed from last year. About the only thing different is the loss of the one bright spot Penn State had in Jeremy Boone who was 19th in the country averaging 43.3 yards per punt. Ryan Breen was expected to step in and take over the punting duties, but Breen inexplicably left the program back in March. Things are so bad that Graham Zug had to fill in as the punter for the White team in the spring game.

Hopefully the punting situation will work itself out by September. Admittedly, Anthony Fera sat out the spring game after getting busted for underage drinking. By all accounts he has a pretty strong leg. He's also in competition with Russ Nye and Alex Butterworth.

As far as the kickoff and punt  returns go, Penn State has plenty of guys who can return them. Devon Smith, Curtis Drake, Chaz Powell, Justin Brown, and Stephfon Green have plenty of speed. The question is who is going to block and cover in the kicking game. This was the biggest problem I saw on special teams last year. Specifically with the personnel.

If you recall in 2008, Penn State special teams were fantastic. Derrick Williams got most of the attention in the return game, but there were also guys like Nate Stupar blowing up wedges and slicing through blockers. Brandon Beachum was also a key blocker. And in kick coverage A.J. Wallace and Knowledge Timmons also played critical roles.

Last year I looked at our special teams and I saw guys like James Van Fleet, Mike Zordich, Shaine Thompson, and Shelton McCullough. No offense to any of these guys, but Penn State should be able to put together a better set of athletes on special teams. Part of the reason they chose the people they chose were because of the lack of depth at cornerback and all of the injuries Penn State suffered at linebacker. The second team corners make good gunners in coverage, and linebackers are good at shedding blocks to get to the ball carrier. When your starters go down on defense those guys get bumped up, and the third string guys get trotted out on the punt team.

So maybe there is hope for this year. Penn State has a lot of depth at cornerback, so look for guys like Derrick Thomas and Chaz Powell to get a shot at gunner. The linebackers are stacked, so I'm looking for guys like Chris Colasanti, Mike Yancich, and either Nate Stupar or Gerald Hodges to get a shot. If Penn State does this, I think we'll see a major improvement in special teams for 2010.

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