Never, ever underestimate the boundless importance of special teams. A single mishap on special teams can easily swing the momentum of a game, and quickly change a win to a loss. This is even more magnified for a program like Penn State, who is battling to “break through” into the upper-echelon of the familiar playoff favorites.
One special teams play can be the difference between breaking through or not, and have the seismic impact to alter the direction of the program for good or bad.
Will Jake Pinegar bounce back again?
Pinegar has had an up-and-down career in his first three seasons in Happy Valley after becoming the starting kicker as a true freshman in 2018. His freshman year got off to a rocky start, missing four of his first eight field goal attempts during the first half of the season. He would turn things around though, going near perfect the rest of the way. Pinegar gained the confidence of the coaching staff, and went 12 for 14 during the final seven games. His only two misses came against Wisconsin, on a day filled with artic, swirling winds pinballing around Beaver Stadium.
His sophomore year was nearly perfect, hitting 11 of 12 attempts, with the only miss coming at an inconsequential time during a 35-7 victory against Purdue. Then came another rough start in 2020. Pinegar missed two field goals in the three-and-a-half hour nightmare overtime loss in Bloomington to kick off the season. He missed his only attempt two weeks later against Maryland, causing a dismal one-of-four start through three games. He turned things around the next week, going three of three against Nebraska, helping him with another strong finish, connecting on eight-of-nine the rest of the way.
Pinegar has proven to possess the leg and accuracy to be a outstanding kicker. Now he will need to put together a complete season to help Penn State stay on the right side of the win column.
Who will be the main kick returner?
There are some intriguing options, but it’s unclear who will ultimately be the main returner throughout the season. Of course, there’s Jahan Dotson but it doesn’t seem likely to be add kick return duties while handling punt returns and, well, playing a significant role in the offense as one of the Big Ten’s best playmakers. Lamont Wade did an outstanding job toward the end of the season, even taking a 100-yard kickoff to the house against Illinois, but his days in the blue and white are over. Parker Washington averaged 20 yards per return, but his role in the offense will certainly be increasing, especially if defenses focus on trying to slow down Dotson in the passing game. Devyn Ford averaged 18.6 yards, but his longest return was 28 yards, which certainly doesn’t make him a shoe-in for the job. While his role with the offense should be expanding, he could still be available as a regular return man as several talented running backs should be splitting carries again in 2021.
If there is a game-breaking return man who is a regular threat to take one back, we won’t know until the fall.
Boom or Bust
We are all well-aware that Jordan Stout has a mighty powerful leg. What we have yet to learn is that if that beautiful catapult of a leg can perform with the needed precision and consistency in the punt game.
Stout did well after taking over as punter in 2020. He averaged 41.5 yards per punt, and finished the season with two of his better performances. However, he was a bit all over the place - sometimes following up a great punt with a shank off the side of his foot. His powerful leg also didn’t result in the 60 or 70-yard blasts that his predecessor, Blake Gillikin, routinely pulled off. Stout finished with just three punts of 50-plus yards, with a season high of 56 yards. He had his best games against Ohio State and Iowa, when he averaged 49 yards per punt on four attempts, and 45.3 yards on four attempts, respectively. He also had four games where he fell under an average of 40 yards - which can ultimately spell doom for the defense when losing the field position battle.
Stout was put in a difficult situation as he was set to take on the new role as punter, without the chance to work with coaches during the offseason. However, with some fine tuning this offseason, Stout can easily become a more consistent and dynamic punter in year two in the starting role.