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3 Reasons for Optimism: Special Teams

Say it with me now: Gillikin’s Island

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

So far we’ve taken a look at optimism for the offense, concern for the offense, optimism for the defense, and concern for the defense. Next up, it’s time we here at Black Shoe Diaries dive into why the special teams will be a strength for the Nittany Lions in 2018.

1. Jake Pinegar will be the next great Penn State kicker tackling fools on kickoffs

For the last three years, Tyler Davis has been a stalwart for Penn State’s special teams. Originally splitting kicking duties with Joey Julius, Tyler took over the full spectrum of place kicking in 2017. He graduated after the 2017 season, and is currently working out with the Buffalo Bills. It was expected that redshirt sophomore Alex Barbir would take over kicking duties, when he suddenly left the team in December. Just like that, Penn State was without a scholarship kicker.

Luckily for Penn State fans, James Franklin knows what he’s doing, and brought in Jake Pinegar as part of the recruiting class of 2018. Rated as the number 9 kicker in the country by Kohl’s Kicking, Jake is touted as having exceptional athleticism, coupled with top three ball skills nationally (when he brings his A game). The kicking duties are Pinegar’s to lose, as walk-ons Nick DeAngellis and Carson Landis are the only other kickers on the roster - though it’s been said that Blake Gillikin could chip in if needed.

2. Miles Sanders and DeAndre Thompkins are back

Penn State loses its top kick returner in Saquon Barkley. Saquon was good for two kickoffs returned for touchdowns in 2017, averaging 28.4 yards per return. Miles Sanders will take over as kick returner full time in 2018, and the former five-star recruit will look to wow spectators. It may end up being a moot point, however, as new kickoff rules dictate that any time a kickoff is fair caught inside the 25 yard line, it will be treated as a touchback and teams will start at the 25. Expect to see much fewer returns this year than in year’s past.

On the punt return side of the house, DeAndre Thompkins is back. Thompkins returned one punt for a touchdown in 2017, the first punt return for a touchdown since 2008. In 2017, DeAndre averaged 13.3 yards per punt return, good for second in the Big Ten for punt returners with at least 10 returns. As a senior, Thompkins should have even more speed, strength, and polish on his returning abilities, giving the Lions a true threat in the return game.

3. Blake “Don’t Leave Me Stranded On This Island” Gillikin

As if we could forget about the keystone of Penn State’s special team’s strength - Blake Gillikin. After a quagmire at the punting position prior to 2016, Blake showed up and immediately showed why having a scholarship punter is a luxury. Before his arrival, Penn State rotated between Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla, both players averaging around 38 yards per punt.

Since arriving, Gillikin has averaged 43 yards per punt, giving the Lions an extra 5 yards on every flipped possession. Blake has also had 25 punts downed inside the opponent’s 10 yard line, with 18 such punts coming in 2017. His considerable punting hang time, coupled with resurgence in the punt return coverage unit, has led to minimal opportunities for opposing teams to return punts. 2018 will be Gillikin’s third year of putting returners on an island, and the strong-legged kicker may even get to show off his place-kicking abilities while Jake Pinegar gets settled in.

Yea verily, in Gillikin we trust.