In 2017, Penn State enjoyed an offensive renaissance, with Joe Moorhead at the helm in his second season as offensive coordinator, and with dynamic playmakers on offense, including Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, Mike Gesicki, and DaeSean Hamilton. As a result, the special teams were very solid.
In 2017, Penn state went 71-for-71 on extra points (71 touchdowns y’all!). They only punted the ball 53 times on the year, 110th in the country (this is good, you want to be in last place for this one). When they did punt, they averaged 43.2 yards, good for 35th overall, with a long of 57 yards.
On returns, they averaged 21.6 yards per kickoff return, ranking 49th in the country, and tacking on two touchdowns. When they returned punts, they averaged 12.2 yards per return, good for 16th in the country, and adding on one touchdown.
If there was one weak spot, it was field goal kicking. On the year, the Lions tried just 17 field goals, but connected on just nine, a 52.9% completion percentage, 120th in the country, and a long of 47 yards. However, when you’re scoring five+ touchdowns per game, field goals aren’t always super vital.
2018 saw some drop offs from the previous year. For one, the offense wasn’t as dynamic, meaning the special teams struggles were highlighted - unlike the previous year, when the offense just scored at will, and punting, kicking, and returning weren’t super important, the 2018 team needed every point and yard it could get - and was often left wanting.
Two extra points were missed in 2018, dropping the team to 85th in the country on made extra point percentage. They punted 64 times on the year, moving up to 52nd in the country. Good news, however, was that their average punt increased to 44.0 yards, 23rd in the country, with a long of 74 yards.
On returns, they went up to 24.7 yards per kickoff return, 12th in the country, though they did not log any touchdowns. On punt returns, they dipped to just 8.2 yards per return, 73rd in the country, and one touchdown (against Pitt in the mud).
Remarkably, field goal kicking actually improved. The Lions went 16-for-22, up to a 72.7% completion rate, and a long of 49 yards.
All of this to ask: how will special teams fare this year?
Looking at the above statistics, it seems there is at least a reasonable correlation between offensive proficiency and special teams. Especially when field goal kicking is iffy, having your offense simply punch the ball in for a touchdown, rather than having to rely on kicking a field goal would be preferable (duh).
So, on that front, the special teams may still have their ups and downs this year. While I believe the offense will be good, there are a bunch of new faces across the offensive depth chart, and some growing pains should probably be expected. If the offense comes closer to 2017 than 2018, we should see a few of the metrics return as strengths. If the offense struggles, expect similar results as last year.
One thing that is not caught in the stats, however, is coaching. Phil Galiano took over as special teams coordinator in 2018, and things were not always great. The Lions allowed kickoff returns for touchdowns, punt returns for touchdowns, onside kicks to be recovered by opposing teams, and fell for fake field goals throughout the 2018 campaign.
Galiano moved on and has been replaced by Joe Lorig, who put together consistently solid special teams while at Memphis. The hope is that some of the mental mistakes from 2018 will be reduced by having a new coach, as well as another year of experience for the young special teams players.
So what say you? Can we expect the special teams to improve in 2019? Perhaps avoid costly returns, fakes, and onside kicks? Improve on field goal kicking even more? Maybe add on some more return touchdowns? Time will tell, but I, for one, am optimistic.