The 2016 football season was the first in a number of years in which special teams was not only not a liability for Penn State – but a marked strength. From Tyler Davis’ streak of made kicks to Joey Julius’ big hits that made him a target for opposing special teams players, to Blake Gillikin’s obvious immediate impact (and game saving safety), to Marcus Allen and Grant Haley combining for the special teams play that shook the college football world during PSU’s white out game against Ohio State, Charles Huff’s squads came to play last year.
Not much will look to change in 2017, with all of the key players back for another run. Spring football generally doesn’t feature much by the way of special teams – which may be why, though most of us expected an upgrade last season, the extent of the impact that those units would have on the games played out during the season took many by surprise.
In past years’ spring scrimmages, punting was featured but returns were not; kickoffs were removed from the game, being replaced by a halftime feature on the kicking units. There has been no incentive on extra points or field goals, so look for those units to be virtually non-existent.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t preview the kicking units, right? After all, good special teams equals winning – just ask Urban Meyer.
Starter: Sophomore Blake Gillikin
Backup: Senior Daniel Pasquariello
Then-true freshman Gillikin was a breath of fresh air last season, filling a position of absolute need and being the one player to have virtually been a lock to start from day one. He didn’t disappoint, averaging 42.8 yards per punt on the year (#3 in the conference), and directionally angling his kicks when needed. He set records on freshman punting in Happy Valley and already finds himself in the program’s top ten for punting averages on a season – and was named to multiple All-Freshman teams, as well as the Big Ten All-Bowl team and an honorable mention All-Big Ten player. He also showed incredible ball awareness, with an ability to know what to do and when to do it almost all year – with no play more indicative of this than when he fell on a blocked punt in the endzone versus Ohio State, giving up the safety rather than allowing a punt block return for a touchdown – a five point swing that ultimately made a big difference, and allowed his special teams teammates to win the game later on.
Gillikin will likely build on this in his sophomore season, getting even better as the years go on; as the 2nd best punter in his 2016 recruiting class, he was the first scholarship punter on a James Franklin-led Penn State squad, and he certainly paced the team. We’re more likely to see some of 2015’s starting punter, Aussie Pasquariello, who only saw time in one game (Maryland) last year. A serviceable backup, Pasquariello has a different kick style than Gillikin and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team after his 2014 season; he has the leg strength to boom punts upwards of 60 yards, and enough time in the program to know what to do if his number is called.
Punting is winning, after all, and though we won’t see much of Gillikin (or even Pasquariello) in the spring game, we’re in a much better place with punting this year than we were a year ago – and we were surprisingly optimistic one year ago.
Starter: Who Knows? Redshirt freshman Alex Barbir, redshirt junior Joey Julius, redshirt senior Tyler Davis
Backups: Junior Jordan Wombacker
Many of us pundits penciled in Barbir to start from day one last season – while this bet wasn’t as sure as Gillikin, the underwhelming overall kicking game of the previous season had us doubting Franklin when he said he saw improvement in last year’s offseason, despite Davis having been named All-Big Ten. What a way to be wrong.
Kicking duties were mostly split in 2016, with Davis taking the field for field goals and extra points, Julius booming kickoffs. Davis had a much better season than most anticipated, setting the school record for consecutive field goals made (18), and tying the Penn State record for most extra points kicked in a single season with 62 – and finishing the year second in the school record books for field goals made on a year. He also tied the conference single-season scoring record (128 points) on his way to multiple accolades (including being named to the first team All-Big Ten team).
On kickoffs, Julius came clean about off-field struggles – and on-field success followed after being named to the all-conference freshman team in 2015. He came out with a fire in 2016, and soon became known not just for booming kickoffs through the endzone – but for monster hits he would lay on the opposing players who dared to field his kicks. His hits were so vicious that Michigan’s all-everything Jabrill Peppers not want anything to do with him and allowed his teammate to get leveled later on in the game:
Julius himself became the target of dirty blocks later in the season, drawing flags (and ejections) in both the Minnesota and Maryland games as opposing special teams players tried to keep him down, and prevent him from laying his patented hits against their return specialists (whether they were actually fielding the balls or not). He was sidelined due to injury in the bowl game against USC, and the struggles the team had in kicking were obvious.
Next up, though, is Barbir – who, despite his lack of an airplane commit video, was still the 8th best kicker in the nation in his recruiting class, and highly touted. Will he see time in 2017 as the starter? We likely won’t know until the Akron game, as the spring scrimmage has never been a place for kickers to showcase their skills. If his early returns are any indication, though, PSU is stocked in the placekicker position for years to come.
Starters/Backups: Your guess is as good as mine
Last season, true freshman running back (and five star recruit) Miles Sanders slotted himself in in returning kicks for the Nittany Lions—mainly as a function of trying to get the ball in the hands of your most electrifying playmakers. Then-senior Gregg Garrity took some punt return snaps when the situation called for a fair catch - but he’s gone. DeAndre Thompkins had some good plays in return situations, but saw himself pulled occasionally due to occasional ball handling issues.
New this year is the electrifying true freshman KJ Hamler, who may see time as a return specialist right away - and don’t count out now-presumed starter true Lamont Wade as a return man and game changer.
Franklin likely won’t show his hand on who the return specialists will be until September, as there’ve been nothing but fair catches in the spring for years—and with a variety of players sitting out the spring with no-contact jerseys on, 2017 is likely to be no different.