Outwardly, fixing Penn State's special teams play in 2009 would appear to be a huge undertaking for the upcoming season. The place kicker isn't really reliable beyond 40 yards. The return and kick coverage teams were among the worst in the nation last season, and possibly worst of all, no one is still quite sure who the punter is going to be when the Nittany Lions take on Youngstown St. on September 4, just over 30 days away (!).
That said, making progress in one of these areas could go a long way in making the unit as a whole look better.
A few weeks ago, we talked about a possible light at the end of the tunnel in the return game, mostly as a result of the improved depth State is expected to have this season allowing for better personnel on special teams.
Lions fans can also look back to a recent history of game-changing plays when trying to find reason to believe 2010 will be a brighter year for a unit that may have cost Penn State a conference title in 2009.
Two words: Derrick Williams
O and that speed thing...
The Derrick Williams era in the return game probably didn't get the credit it deserved while it was ongoing. Fans were often frustrated by too many fair catch calls and the like, and probably with some justification. However, Williams undeniably had a knack for making game changing plays at big times, often with a little help from his friends.
As we'll see in this first return, there's sometimes no substitute for raw speed and quickness.
Not particularly great blocking. Wheelz just got north and south quickly, made a few people miss and was gone. The result was a back breaking 17-0 lead that Penn State never looked back from in crushing the Badgers in one of the Lions' best wins of the year.
Fuse Williams' athleticism with a little better blocking, and it's even more beautiful to watch.
Three big blocks as Williams was reversing the field, and bam, home run again.
The good news for Penn State in 2010 is that there are more players this year who would appear capable of excelling in the Willams role rather than just filling it. While last year Joe Paterno was forced to use Evan Royster at times simply for his better hands and good decision making, he'll have plenty of game breaking options this year with a more experienced group of Curtis Drake, Chaz Powell and Devon Smith among others.
Of course, athleticism is only one element of the return game though. Often great blocking can make even mediocre returners look great, and that's something Penn State saw a lot more in 2007 and 2008 than in 2009.
Let's start with the Big Ten opener vs. Illinois in 2008.
Check out 1:37 when Herbstreit telestrates the blocking and what a great job Dan Lawlor, Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler did of initial blocking before Brandon Beachum sprung the foot race with his block on the kicker on the back end.
Just phenomanal blocking all the way around allowed Williams to weave his way through traffic quickly on his way to another game changing touchdown that put the Lions safely ahead of a dangerous Illini team late in the game.
Then, the mother of them all, the Williams touchdown against Notre Dame in early 2007.
Just look at the carnage. No less than three devastating blocks right off the start following the initial missed tackle by the Notre Dame gunner and a couple more as Williams weaved his way back across the field on his way in for six.
Truthfully, Williams probably did more side-to-side running than you might normally want on a return for fear of holds and blocks in the back, but the blocking was just so superb here that he could afford a couple mistakes and still find pay dirt.
Whether Penn State will get this kind of blocking in 2010 remains to be seen, but we know this coaching staff is certainly capable of teaching up the right talent to do great things in looking at the returns above.
The point of all this is that Penn State doesn't have to be great across the board on special teams for them to make a difference. It doesn't even have to be particularly consistent in the return game. A few big plays could go a long way in masking some of Penn State's weaker points on special teams, and the rest of the team in general. Iowa showed last year the impact a big special teams play can have in a close game. Here's hoping Penn State will be on the other end of that a couple of times this year.