The storylines heading into Saturday's Blue-White game seem scripted well in advance. What most people will be focused on will be the quarterbacks on the offense, and the defense as a whole and how it adjusts to losing a majority of its leadership and starters. Those are important questions, and ones we'll tackle this week on BSD.
But a topic that gets much less coverage but may be even more pressing is Special Teams.
In 2012, the special teams play of the Nittany Lions was downright abysmal. They ranked at the bottom or near the bottom of the conference in most statistics, and were in the bottom quarter of the nation. To wit:
- 103rd in Net Punting (34.45 YPP)--10th in B1G
- 90th in Punt Returns (6.07 YPR)--9th in B1G
- 112th in Kickoff Returns (18.07 YPR)--12th in B1G
- 86th in Punt Return Defense (9.82 YPR)
- 89th in Kickoff Return Defense (23.10 YPR)
These stats come as no surprise to anyone who watched Penn State play last year; indeed, the year of frustrating uncertainty in that aspect of the game was foreshadowed pretty quickly, when soon-to-be-drafted Gerald Hodges trotted out on the field versus Ohio to field punt returns.
Hodges. Fielding punts.
Pretty needless to say, that in itself was an experiment that ended pretty quickly; but it wasn't until later in the season that things started turning around for the Penn State special teams unit.
Eventually, after trying nearly every combination available to them and notching exactly zero punt and kickoff returns for TDs on the season, Bill O'Brien and then-special teams coordinator John Butler found a serviceable return man in safety Jesse Della Valle, who ended the season 43rd in the nation in punt return yardage, with an average of 7.6 yards per return. Expect Della Valle to continue to return punts this year, often paired with a combination of Geno Lewis, Alex Kenney, Trevor Williams or Malik Golden.
Della Valle should also be back to field kickoff returns, where he will likely be paired with Bill Belton, Williams or Kenney, all of whom saw time in that role last year. If I had money to put on it, I'd expect Belton and Della Valle to be the go-to guys on kickoff returns come August; that is, provided Belton doesn't supercede all expectations and pass Zach Zwinak on the depth chart at running back.
Another position that solidified as the season went on was placekicker. As Dan recounted in Friday's cover boy plea, Sam Ficken often personified the Penn State squad of 2012; reviled and made fun of at the beginning of the year after an abysmal performance in Charlottesville, Ficken later became the hero of the season-ending OT win over Big Ten champ Wisconsin.
This year's job is Ficken's to lose, and it's unlikely he'll do so. Accounts for years have indicated how strong Ficken's leg was, and the beginning of 2012 showed how much he needed to grow mentally to compete as a D1 kicker. By the end of the season, Ficken was able to get his nerves (and haters) silenced, ending the year 49th in the nation in field goals per game (1.17)--despite the fact that O'Brien went for it on fourth downs seemingly more often than not. Ficken ended the season at 14 of 21 for field goals--but of that, he made 12 of his last 13. Aside from the aforementioned game at UVA, that's not a bad performance--and coupled with his booming leg on kickoffs and a serviceable backup in State College native Kevin DiSanto, the Nittany Lions look solid in the placekicker position.
The same can't be said for punting. Punter Alex Butterworth was mediocre at best in 2012, averaging 37.35 ypp and ending the year 92nd in the nation in that statistic. Despite this, he was undoubtedly the team's best option at this position; in 2013, however, look for former minor league baseball player Reynolds Parthemore to challenge Butterworth immediately for playing time.
Parthemore will be a redshirt freshman who played football for the verbose Jim Cantafio at Cedar Cliff, where he once logged a 71-yard punt. He originally was offered a baseball scholarship at PSU in 2009 before joining a Boston Red Sox farm team for a few seasons; the Sox released him in 2012, and he joined the Penn State football team (Parthemore is ineligible to compete in baseball due to his past professional status).
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