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The Subtle Resurgence of Penn State Football

What will be common knowledge in three months may be easily overlooked as the season begins.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images

When you stand too close to something, it becomes hard to see the changes that occur slowly, one fragment of an inch at a time. Watching the recovery from the adversity that the Penn State football program has faced in recent years has been like watching stop-motion movie making. One frame at a time, the program moves forward. To those people who watch daily it seems like the progress is painfully slow. The big-picture reveals satisfying progress that is set to be on display in just a few more days.

The Days of Having Sub-Par Special Teams Are Over

On March 28, 2012, Ryan Switzer committed to North Carolina after being considered likely to come to Penn State. While there are many components to having a successful punt return, the return man is an obvious factor. Switzer went on to take five punt returns to the house for the Tar Heels in 2013, and his 7 career punt return touchdowns has him just one shy of the all-time NCAA record heading into his senior season. Had Switzer chosen Penn State—well, what if?

Bruce Branch (1998-2001) is Penn State’s all-time leader in punt returns for touchdowns with 4. Derrick Williams (2005-2008) and O.J. McDuffie (1988-1992), two of the most well-known return men in recent Penn State history, each had three punt return touchdowns during their time at Penn State. Since Derrick Williams’ departure from PSU, the punt return has been lacking in excitement. DeAndre Thompkins averaged 7.7 yards per punt return last season, with a long of 58. That’s not a bad season for a young punt returner but ball security was an issue.

It seems likely that the team will see a great increase in production in the return game this season.

Thompkins is a verified speed merchant but indecision possibly brought on by inexperience slowed him down a half-step last season. Were he to remain as the featured punt returner, it is likely that he will fare better than he did last season. There is also the fact that the loaded running back, receiver, and defensive secondary corps will force some highly-talented players to special teams to get their cleats on the field. Increased competition for the position in practice should lead to better production on the field. This should be the season we see the progress result in shorter fields for the offense.

On the flip side, Jeremy Boone (2007-2009) averaged 43 yards per punt for his first two seasons and 43.3 during his senior year for the Lions. He is the only punter to average more than 42 yards per punt for Penn State this century. Chris Gulla (37.5) and Daniel Pasquariello (38.7) have held the position for the past two years and the results have been far from awesome. In their defense, Gulla was rushed into duty earlier than he was probably prepared, and Pasquariello made his first punt just months after arriving from Australia, having never attempted a punt during a live football game. Pasquariello improved his average last season by 2.6 yards to a respectable 39.9 yards per punt.

Blake Gillikin will be the first punter to come to Penn State on scholarship since Anthony Fera (a punter/kicker) arrived in 2010, though Alex Butterworth, a former walk-on, was granted a scholarship for his final season in 2013—outside of that, Penn State has been punting with walk-ons for the past few years. Gillikin has been given the green light to play as a freshman but it is not certain whether he will take the first punt, if there is one, on September 3. It stands to reason with Pasquariello improving and the experienced Gulla providing depth, that the starting punter will have better results than we’ve seen in recent years, whether it is Gillikin from day one or not.

Likewise, the place-kicking is poised for a major improvement this season. Alex Barbir, a highly-regarded kicking prospect, enters the fold for the kicking responsibilities. Tyler Davis and Joe Julius combined for 18 made field goals in 20 attempts in 2015, but inconsistency marred the kicking game last season as Julius lost the starting job while missing four extra points and having kickoffs sail out of bounds. Barbir has recently been referred to as currently wearing a yellow shirt by the Penn State coaching staff. That implies that he will redshirt if the other kickers can hold on to their jobs.

The highly touted kicker has a strong leg, as witnessed by his 71 yard field goal this summer. Sure it was with a near hurricane-force wind at his back and no pressure, but the young prospect from Georgia has the skill to play immediately. It appears that the two veteran kickers will be given the first shot at the job, though it’s unlikely that either will remain in their places without much improvement over last season. With an additional year of practice for Julius and Davis, and the addition of the first scholarship kicker since the great Sam Ficken, Penn State stands to make noticeable improvements in the kicking game this year.

There has been speculation that Saquon Barkley could take reps as the kick returner this season—whether that happens with regularity, or at all, will remain to be seen. It is certain that many young receivers, running backs, and defensive backs will be vying for a chance to return kicks. The competition and variety of weapons available to deploy should finally allow Penn State to threaten the opposition with lengthy returns. The secret ingredient to the improved return game will be the young players lined up to block for the return specialists. There should be a great deal of players from the recent recruiting classes given the task of opening holes for the punt and kickoff returners, and the increased athleticism of the entire 11-man squad will provide better results than the program has been accustomed to seeing.

Trace McSorley Is A Winner

Trace McSorley spent the first two years at Penn State obscured in the long shadow cast by quarterback—and team figurehead—Christian Hackenberg. As the season is set to begin, with his tenure at the helm of the Penn State offense set to begin, it seems McSorley remains under appreciated for what he brings to the table. The comparisons to Matt McGloin have been made. The pair share not just the first two letters of their surname but also a lack of overt physical prowess. They also each have a spark that is hard to quantify that allows them to moxie their way to the promised land.

Trace McSorley could also be compared to an old-school Mc, and fellow wearer of number 9, former BYU Cougar and Chicago Bear quarterback Jim McMahon. Like McGloin and McSorely, Jim McMahon was fond of wearing sunglasses that weren’t of the highest quality. He had the ‘deal with it’ mentality long before the internet meme, or the internet, existed.

McMahon didn’t run the ball often mostly due to the style of offense that he played under, but he was a very good athlete. During his first two seasons at BYU, McMahon was the team’s punter, averaging 39 yards per punt. That’s better than the Nittany Lions’ average over the past two years. On the field the diminutive but feisty rebel continuously led his team to victory at every level of competition.

These three quarterbacks have been overlooked and under appreciated at times due to the fact that they all stand within a few hairs of six feet tall. They are not prototypes. They are just winners. By Thanksgiving it may be universally accepted that McSorley is the type of player that finds a way to win when the game is on the line.

Much is made of recruiting rankings for players as they come out of high school; it should be remembered that some of the hype placed behind incoming players is related to their readiness to play as underclassmen. If a player is ready to play as a true freshman, the player will be rated much higher than one that may need a couple of years of seasoning. The point of making this distinction is that one liability that McSorley entered college bearing, according to the scouting circles, has expired. He supposedly was not ready to step in and play quarterback from day one. Two years and a redshirt later, that should not affect his play on the field this season. It would be similar to a player adding weight or gaining speed. Initially the lack of an attribute knocks a recruit down a peg, but once the hurdle is overcome, this perception should not linger with the player. McSorley should be judged by his production on the field this season—not his height, and not his talents compared to other players that played at Penn State in the past. Much like McMahon and McGloin, it is likely that McSorley will fare well when unfair expectations are lifted and his play on the field does the talking.

The Light Years Are Upon Us

The Penn State football program had losing seasons in four of five years from 2000-2004 for a combined record of 26-33. It was not hard to realize that the team was in the midst of what is now referred to by many as the ‘dark years’. Preceding the downturn was a terrible streak in the recruiting sector. It was equally clear that the dark years ended in 2005 when the team brought in two of the highest recruits in the country, Derrick Williams and Justin King, and finished with an 11-1 record.

The five ensuing seasons saw the Lions enjoy a 51-13 record. The stark downturn was marked by an equally clear burst of success. The past six years have seen the Lions understandably hovering just above .500 most of the time, with a combined record of 45-31. Recruiting and personnel once again had a drastic role in the stagnation in the win category. Three years ago the tide began to turn, with highly-rated recruiting classes returning to the program. By the end of the season it may be clear that the team will have the talent to compete at the highest level moving forward, for Big Ten and national championships, and that the future is so bright that our quarterback isn’t the only one who has to wear shades.

The downturn in the win and loss category over the past six years has not been as pronounced as it was in the early 2000s, nor will we see the pendulum swing to 11-1 as it did when the team came out of those doldrums. The turning of the tides will be seen on the field, with young players dominating play on special teams and the roster full of contributors that will return for another couple of years. It may take a few months and a little reflection to realize this, but the recent downturn for Penn State football has ended. We can have nice things again.