What a difference a few years can make. Coming into last season, Penn State’s special teams were an unknown, with a rookie punter, a new kicker, and a return unit that had not been explosive for almost a decade. Enter Blake Gillikin, Tyler Davis, Joey Julius, and solid returner John Reid, and 2017’s outlook is quite a bit brighter. Here are just a few reasons why Penn State is in better shape this year.
Consistency and Reliability at Punter
The aforementioned Gillikin was highly-rated coming from Smyrna, Georgia, but freshmen contributors at special teams are usually a flip of the coin— would he be Jeremy Kapinos, or a younger version of the inconsistent Daniel Pasquariello? Gillikin in fact broke Kapinos’ freshman record for average yards per punt and was named a freshman All-American. His athleticism even prevented Penn State from losing a game that ended up turning around their season (1:23). Gillikin’s consistency, accuracy, and leg strength makes the punting position a weapon once again. He’s not the only strength of the kicking game, however.
Two Impressive Kickers
Everyone in the country is aware of one of Penn State’s kickers, Joey Julius. The strong-legged and big-boned kickoff specialist became a target for opposing teams as the season progressed and his hit streak grew, prompting two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Minnesota and Maryland. Joey is a consistent source of touchbacks, not seen perhaps since David Kimball, and provided he can overcome his eating disorder, he will be another source of comfort for Nittany Lion fans.
The kicker that the country might not be as aware of is the ever-reliable field goal man, Tyler Davis. Davis set the Penn State record with 18 straight field goals made, and also made 62 straight extra points. Penn State has had some difficulty finding a consistent kicker for several years, and Davis provides a security that is hard to come by. Hopefully he won’t have to win many games for the Nittany Lions this fall, but if he is called upon, the odds are good that Davis will put it through the uprights.
A Wealth of Explosive Return Men
Yes, John Reid is injured. His ability to make people miss in the open field was a pleasant sight to see after the likes of Anthony Scirrotto and Jesse Della Valle returned punts for the last decade or so, and there may be a lot of mixing and matching to find their man early in the season. However, Penn State has tons of speedy athletes able to field kicks and punts and make the kickoff return a weapon again. (Please, make it a weapon again. I mean, I love the sure hands of the aforementioned Della Valle, but we need some Bruce Branch or Derrick Williams-esq explosiveness back there.) Brandon Polk returns from a redshirt year, not to mention DeAndre Thompkins, Mark Allen, and newcomer Lamont Wade. All of these players, plus freshman KJ Hamler make the return game a source of strength in 2017. Penn State’s special teams is in a much better situation in 2017 than they were coming into 2016.