Before we even get into the individual special teams areas, the key change in 2019 will start at the top. Phil Galiano is no longer with Penn State, after a season that saw the special teams units decline nearly across the board. Unfortunately, a steady stream of special teams miscues never ceased throughout the season.
Hopefully, that is set to change in 2019 with the hire of new special teams coach, Joe Lorig, formerly of Memphis and Texas Tech (although he never coached a game at the latter after being hired by Penn State in the same offseason he took the Red Raiders job).
During his tenure with Memphis, his special teams units regularly ranked at or near the top of AAC statistical categories, and his punt and kickoff never allowed a return touchdown. As Patrick noted earlier, this would be considered “lit.”
Here’s what Lorig will have to work with in his first season in Happy Valley:
Jake Pinegar returns as the team’s starting placekicker, following a true freshman campaign that got off to a rocky start before beginning to excel at the midpoint of the season. Pinegar was only four of eight after the first six games of 2018, with the staff often opting to roll the dice or try to pin the offense back with a short punt rather than attempting a field goal beyond 40 yards.
However, things would begin to change for Pinegar against Indiana in week eight, as he drilled both of his attempts. He truly turned the corner the following week by nailing all three attempts- each beyond 40 yards- on a wet field against Iowa. Each field goal became crucially important as the team held out for a 30-24 victory that wasn’t determined until the final play of the game. After that, Pinegar would connect on seven of nine attempts the remainder of the season, with both misses coming in swirling winds against Wisconsin. He finished the season by hitting 16 of 24 field goals, while connecting on 53 of 55 extra point attempts.
Rafael Checa won the starting kickoff specialist spot as a true freshman from the start of 2018, and never looked back. Checa’s booming leg instantly proved valuable to the kickoff unit, as he regularly reached the end zone to eliminate the option of a return. Nearly half of his kickoffs (47%) resulted in touchbacks. He also channeled his inner Joey Julius by collecting two tackles on kickoff coverage as well. One key area for improvement for Checa leading up to 2019 will be to reduce the number of kickoffs that went out of bounds, as he had six in his freshman season.
Blake Gillikin returns for his senior season, looking to cement his legacy as Penn State’s all-time best punter. While the special teams often struggled throughout 2018, Gillikin was a complete force and the one consistent bright spot. He broke a 37 year old school record with a 44-yard punt average on the season. He also overtook Jeremy Boone for the best all-time average of 43.3 yards and blasted three punts for 70 yards or more. Gillikin also pulled double-duty as the team’s holder.
In his final season at Penn State, Gillikin should enter the season as a Ray Guy Award candidate with an eye on the NFL in 2020.
Let’s start out with the obvious- one of the most electric Nittany Lions in recent memory is set to return kickoffs again in 2019. While Hamler may not come off the field much on offense, it’s hard to imagine the staff not using him as the primary kick returner yet again. Hamler has the ability to turn any return into a long gain, regardless of the coverage in front of him. With one decisive cut, Hamler has the ability to outrace the coverage team all the way to the end zone, or at least allow the offense to start the possession in field goal range.
Journey Brown is likely candidate to help with kick returner duties, as he is one of the fastest players on the roster, and will have limited carries in a crowded backfield.
Penn State will have a new face at punt returner as DeAndre Thompkins has exhausted his eligibility. Thompkins was a dangerous return man with outstanding speed and vision, and will not be easy to replace. However, Penn State has several speedy athletes and should be able to find someone ready to step into the role.
Hamler has the most experience as a punt returner, with 14 returns. However, it may be deemed too much to have Hamler take on both while also being a (the?) focal point of the offense. Fellow wide receiver Jahan Dotson may also get a look. The true sophomore proved to be one of the most sure-handed members of the team, and would be an excellent option while returning punts when backed up near the goalline.
John Reid is an experienced and effective punt returner, but has not held this duty after missing the 2017 season with a knee injury. He did not have a punt return attempt after returning in 2018.
We’ll likely need to wait until closer to the start of the season to get a clearer picture of the return game with no real live special teams action during the Blue-White Game.
Penn State will be breaking in a new long snapper to replace Kyle Vasey, who held the position the last two seasons. However, it looks like the long snapper position will stay in the family, with Kyle’s younger brother, Dan Vasey, likely to step into the starting role. The younger Vasey has not seen any game action yet, but will have three years of eligibility remaining. Vasey is also listed as a defensive lineman, and is the only long snapper currently listed on the roster.