Returning Starters: 2
Key Departures: P Alex Butterworth, KS Ty Howle
K Sam Ficken (Senior)--all B1G Honorable Mention in 2013
KR Geno Lewis (RS Sophmore), DeAndre Thompkins (Freshman)
P Chris Gulla (RS Freshman)
PR Thompkins, Jesse Della Valle (Senior)
Highlights from 2013
If you took many highlights away from Penn State's special teams play in 2013, well, you probably weren't paying much attention. This was a unit that was an overall disappointment for the squad--and, not to play the sanctions card, but scholarship depth likely had a lot to do with it. The unit that head coach James Franklin admitted had the most room for improvement (the squad finished 103rd in net punting, 90th in punt returns, 86th in punt return defense, 112th in kickoff returns, 89th in kickoff return defense) will undergo an overhaul under the new staff and special teams coordinator Charles Huff.
Last year, aside from the skill positions on the special teams, the punt and kick units featured a plethora of walk ons--by choice of the previous staff, who made that strategic decision as a way to combat the sanctions and potential injuries. This year, look for the new staff to field the best possible players at every position--including on each special teams unit.
Ficken's back, and he's looking to be healthy for the first time since early October. That could bode really well for the anchoring of the underperforming unit, and once he solidifies his position under a new staff, for Ficken's confidence as well.
Lewis turned up the heat on the kickoff return team near the end of last year, but look for Thompkins to make an impact on all returns right away. The speedy newcomer averaged 61 yards per punt return in high school, and, yes, our own Nick Polak's kinda a fanboy.
And while Butterworth was a Penn Stater through and through, the best adjective an objective observer could use to describe him is "serviceable"--so his graduation could be, on the field, addition by subtraction.
Aside from Ficken, there's not much experience being brought back on special teams. The potential is there for greatness and excitement (especially from a unit that hasn't brought much of either in a few years), but until we see what we have on the units overall, it's all just potential. A returner is only as good as the blockers in front of him, after all.
There's not a ton of bad here because, let's face it, there's not much that could have gone worse on this unit; when all of us fans are simply praying that an opponent's returner doesn't go all the way (and that's the extent of our hope), something is broken. Let's hope it gets fixed in 2014.
What to look for in the Blue/White game
Not much. As of the writing of this piece, the format of the game hasn't been released but there likely won't be much special teams play. Typically, spring scrimmages don't find a lot of rushing the kickers or punters, and those units are on for practice more than anything else. Though Franklin has stated that none of the starters' positions are solidified, it's tough to see anyone unseat Ficken, so I'd expect him to get a few snaps in but then sit the rest of the game. Gulla is likely to take some kicks as well as punts, but most of the returners (if they do end up kicking off or punting) will probably fair catch everything.