From the time James Franklin arrived in State College, the special teams unit has gone from somewhat of a liability to a strength. That is due in no small part to the fact that Franklin can afford to give scholarships to specialists, but it also speaks volumes of the type of player being recruited to Penn State right now. Some players will see the field almost immediately in their preferred role, while others will need to grind it out on special teams, waiting for older, more established players to graduate. That the special teams players have steadily improved is a testament to them and the coaching staff.
Unfortunately for Penn State, it enters 2018 with some unknowns in the third phase of the game. Gone is place kicker Tyler Davis, who once made 18 consecutive field goals, and holds the school record for field goal percentage. Davis was a key part of the 2016 win over Minnesota, nailing a 40-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
Gone, too, is electric kick returner Saquon Barkley, who made more than one team look foolish on kick returns in 2017.
So who will the Lions turn to in 2018?
The great news for Penn State fans is that phenom punter Blake Gillikin is back for his junior year. Since his arrival for the 2016 season, Gillikin has averaged 43 yards per punt, including 25 downed inside the opponent’s 10 yard line. His impressive hang time and ball placement have given the punt coverage units ample opportunity to stifle returns. Blake will be called upon to help out a young defense by pinning opposing offenses deep in their own territory. Backing up Gillikin is walk on freshman, Carson Landis, who can punt and kick.
Here’s where things get interesting. Tyler Davis has graduated from the program, and the kicking duties seemed like they were destined for redshirt sophomore Alex Barbir - that is, until Penn State opted to offer Jake Pinegar a scholarship, and Barbir opted to transfer from the program. With Alex gone, the Lions will go through the spring without a scholarship kicker on the roster. Carson Landis will make the most of his opportunity to show the coaches what he can do, and Blake Gillikin has expressed interest in kicking, but in all reality the 2018 kicker won’t be on campus until August. Pinegar has showed off impressive leg strength, but entrusting a true freshman to make a game winning field goal in a hostile environment is something that Penn State fans are not accustomed to.
The leading punt returner from last year, DeAndre Thompkins, is back for his redshirt senior season. The talented returner earned second team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches for his 2017 efforts, which included a touchdown against Akron, the first punt return touchdown since 2008. The return man finished number five in the country and number one in the Big Ten for punt return average, at 13.3 yards per punt. Redshirt senior Mark Allen will back up Thompkins in the punt return game.
Despite some protestations from Penn State fans, Barkley was the primary kick returner for most of 2017, including two touchdowns. Miles Sanders took a stab at returning as well, with mixed results. Currently Sanders sits as the favorite to handle kick returning duties, but watch out for Brandon Polk. Polk is fast, and if the coaching staff would rather keep their starting running back fresh, Brandon may get the nod on kickoffs.
The Nittany Lions have turned special teams into a strength, and will look to keep that train going. While the punting and punt returning game should be as strong as ever, the kicking and kick returning portions of special teams may take some ironing out. The Lions will be relying on a true freshman kicker to show up in August and immediately take over all kicking duties - or hand some of them off to a walk on. The primary back up at kick returner is back for 2018, but has not had the best showing, and may be pulled to keep his legs fresh for the run game.
Whatever happens in 2018, the Blue-White game should provide some insight into special teams - or raise enough questions for fans to have some trepidation as the regular season approaches.