Penn State’s special teams have improved dramatically during the past two seasons. What was once a major weakness has generally turned into a strength across the board, from the kicking game, to the powerful leg of punter Blake Gilliken, to the coverage and return units. But with each year comes a new set of concerns, especially when expectations have risen and one poor special teams play could make-or-break a season.
1. Finding a Kicker
Imagine this scenario- it’s September 29, and Ohio State takes a late one-point lead with just under a minute left on the clock. Trace McSorley makes a few clutch throws to set up a 45-yard field goal with :03 left on the clock. How confident are you that the field goal sails through the uprights, giving the Nittany Lions a huge victory and inside track to a division title?
We’ll find out soon enough, but for now the kicking game is a major unknown. A new kicker will need to replace Tyler Davis, who started the past two seasons and is now hoping to find a spot on the Buffalo Bills roster. Potential candidate Alex Babir is no longer with the program. Redshirt freshman Carson Landis, a walk-on, was unable to claim the spot in spring, meaning that starting punter Blake Gillikin was also the top placekicker. While he may be a viable option, James Franklin has gone on record to oppose the idea of a punter also handling kicking duties. The fact that Gilliken may also handle kickoffs makes it even more unlikely he will also serve as placekicker.
The job seems to be Jake Pinegar’s for the taking, who will be a true freshman this fall. While relying on a true freshman who isn’t even on campus is less-than-ideal, Penn State used a scholarship on Pinegar and will have high expectations for him. He will need to find his groove and claim the spot, otherwise Penn State may need to have Gillikin pull triple-duty, or plan to roll the dice and go for it on fourth down regularly in 2018.
2. Fixing the Field Goal Unit
There’s really no way around it- Penn State’s field goal unit was an absolute disaster in 2017. Sure, Tyler Davis had some accuracy issues after connecting on every single attempt that wasn’t blocked in 2015 and 2016, but the issues were much deeper. There were bad snaps, mishandling the ball by the holder, and poor blocks that resulted in just nine successful field goals on the season in 17 attempts.
This won’t be a simple fix. The entire unit needs to be improved across the board. If not, it could be especially problematic for a team with an inexperienced defense that may need all the points it can muster to win a shootout or two (or three of four) throughout the course of the season.
3. Getting the Right Pieces in Place in the Return Game
This item will probably look silly when we look back at a later date (or heck, probably right now as well). Penn State returns plenty of talented return men, but they will all be taking on much larger roles on offense or defense in 2018.
DeAndre Thompkins proved to be an electric punt returner once he overcame some early issues handling the ball. He’ll now look to expand his production as a receiver in his senior year. However, with Penn State’s deep stable of receivers, he should be fine to remain as the full time returner. If not, senior running back Mark Allen could fill the role.
Miles Sanders is back and could take over kick returning duties for Saquon Barkley. But will Sanders be used as a primary kick returner now that he will be the primary running back? The coaches had no problem with Barkley pulling double duty, but that may have been a special exception since...well, Barkley was that special. Koa Farmer is a dangerous returner, but he may not be likely to be used since he will be the leader of a young group of linebackers and needs to stay on the field as much as possible. Brandon Polk has experience and should be in the mix, and we all know he has speed to burn (jet sweep, anyone?).
There are also several new candidates who will see the field for the first time this season, like Journey Brown and KJ Hamler. So while Penn State looks to have plenty of candidates in the return game, you just don’t know what you don’t know.