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Three Reasons for Concern: Special Teams

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Penn State’s special teams made major strides in 2019, but will need some fine-tuning to keep the momentum going this fall.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 21 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Replacing Blake Gillikin

Remember things before Blake Gillikin’s freshman year in 2016? During the first two years of the James Franklin era, the coaches shuffled two punters in and out of the lineup, neither being able to claim the starting gig. One would have a solid game, only to come apart the next week. This back-and-forth went on until Gillikin was able to bring some much-needed stability to the position.

Gillikin locked down the job for the past four years, helping to rewrite the record books along the way. Now he is in New Orleans fighting for a roster spot. Penn State will be looking to break into a new punter who reliably gave the defense a boost by flipping the field and pinning the opponent close to their own end zone.

The good news is that Jordan Stout is listed as the starting punter heading into the fall, and he has more than proven to have a mighty powerful leg. However, will he have the precision and consistency that made Gillikin a standout? Only time can tell.

Gillikin will also be missed as a holder on field goals and extra points. His assumed replacement? Once again, Jordan Stout.

Finding a Return Man as Explosive as KJ Hamler

Replacing KJ Hamler is a near-impossible task. He was someone who always had a chance to reach the end zone with each return, so much so that opponents often surrendered field position just to keep the ball out of his hands.

Penn State has plenty of outstanding athletes who will look to fill the role, and it looks like the staff will look into the talented and deep backfield. Journey Brown is listed as the primary returner, although it’s hard to imagine him being a regular return man with the expected increase in carries this fall (although we thought the same of Saquon Barkley back in August of 2016). Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes, who also have speed to burn, are also listed as possibilities, and seem highly likely to see some action back deep as they continue to earn more carries. Then there’s Micah Parsons — who has been lobbying for the spot, although we have yet to see the nation’s best defensive player receive his opportunity as a return man.

Penalties

The special teams units was vastly improved in 2019 under the new leadership of Joe Lorig. The previous season was filled with constant mishaps and a general lack of preparedness, and the improvement was quickly obvious under Lorig. However, there were still times when penalties proved costly, especially the two return touchdowns by KJ Hamler that were called back in the Michigan and Michigan State games. It’s next to impossible to completely avoid these types of penalties throughout the season, but there will be games when they cannot afford a missed opportunity if they want to break through and not just win the Big Ten, but to finally break through and reach the College Football Playoffs for the first time.