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3 Reasons For Optimism: 2019 Penn State Football Special Teams

Penn State’s special teams unit look to bounce back in a major way.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

As we continue our “3 Reasons For” series here at BSD, next up is why you should be optimistic about the Penn State special teams heading into 2019.

1. Joe Lorig

As everyone who follows the team knows, special teams was a disaster for Penn State in 2018. A strong argument can be made that special teams cost the team a victory in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. Missed field goals against Ohio State and Michigan State were costly, too.

This fall, the special teams units will be under new leadership. After the much maligned Phil Galiano left to take a job with the New Orleans Saints, James Franklin replaced him with Joe Lorig.

Lorig spent the previous three seasons as special teams coordinator at Memphis. During his time in Memphis, the Tigers had one of the best special teams units in the FBS. Under Lorig’s guidance they finished in the top-5 in the FBS in kick return average twice, in the top-20 in punt coverage defense all three years, they were in the top-5 in the FBS in kick coverage defense last season, and his coaching turned Tony Pollard into one of the best return men in FBS history.

An argument can be made that Lorig is the best special teams coordinator in the FBS. This is a complete 180 from Galiano who may have been the worst in 2018. With Lorig now in charge of the Nittany Lions special teams units, you can expect a big improvement this fall.

2. A Strong Return Game

Led by KJ Hamler, the Nittany Lions should have a great return game in 2019. As was mentioned above, Lorig has a history of coaching some of the best return teams in the FBS. There is no reason to not expect the Nittany Lion return teams to be among the best in the FBS this season.

Hamler averaged 27 yards per return last season, but he will not have to do it all by himself. Ricky Slade, Journey Brown, Devyn Ford, Jahan Dotson, and Keaton Ellis can all be weapons in the return game as well.

The amount of talent that Lorig will have at his disposal for both his kick and punt return teams combined with his past history of coaching strong return teams should have Nittany Lion fans salivating. If I were a betting man, I’d put a few dollars down on Penn State scoring multiple return touchdowns this fall.

3. Blake Gillikin

While Bill O’Brien would consider this to be blasphemy, a great punter can be a weapon for a football team. The Nittany Lions have one of the best in the country in senior Blake Gillikin. Now it’s time to weaponize him.

Gillikin is a three-year starter at punter and will be playing on Sundays next fall. In his career he has averaged 43.3 yards per punt, which is a program record. He also set a single-season record by averaging 44.0 yards per punt last season. He’s also the lone punter in program history with at least six punts of 65+ yards and three of 70+.

The Georgia native did struggle with consistency at times last season. However, the special teams as a whole sucked. So, we’ll just go ahead and blame those struggles on Galiano. But in all seriousness, Gillikin needs to avoid the shanks in 2019.

Having a strong punting game can go a long way toward winning the field position battle in a football game. More times than not the team that wins the field position battle is going to walk away victorious in a close game. Look for Lorig to weaponize Gillikin this fall.