Editor’s Note: This is the 14th post in a series previewing Penn State football, part of Onward State and StateCollege.com’s countdown of insight and analysis about head coach James Franklin and his team heading into the Blue-White Game on April 12. Read the previous stories here.
With the Blue-White game coming up in just three short weeks, we are breaking down each position to see where the units stand going into the game. Here’s a look at the special teams: a unit that may get overlooked at first, but is crucial to the success of the Nittany Lions in 2014.
Key losses: Punter Alex Butterworth (graduation), long snapper Ty Howle (graduation).
Key returners: Kicker Sam Ficken, holder Ryan Keiser.
Incoming players: Freshman returner De’Andre Thompkins, redshirt freshman kicker/punter Chris Gulla.
Depth chart: Right now, Ficken is the incumbant for the starting kicker role, and is backed up by Gulla. Gulla also holds the starting punting job, and Ryan Keiser should return as the starting holder. Sophomore Zach Ladonis is slated to fill Howle’s spot as the long snapper.
The returner position is up for grabs, as there are plenty of options available for special teams coach Charlie Huff. Geno Lewis and Bill Belton were the main returners last year, and hold the starting role going into the Blue-White game. A dark horse to watch out for is a speedy incoming freshman De’Andre Thompkins. He’s apparently been impressing during spring practice, and could grab the starting role, depending on if Huff and James Franklin decide to play their starters on special teams.
Player to watch: Chris Gulla. The redshirt freshman has a heck of a leg, converting 17 of 22 field goals during his high school career at Tom Rivers North High, including a game-winning 45 yarder. The walk on hasn’t seen the field in a year, but will he have more confidence than incumbent Sam Ficken? Ficken, one of the most polarizing players in recent Nittany Lion history, started the 2013 season making a Penn State-record 15 straight field goals, but struggled towards the end of the year. The starting kicker job is Gulla’s for the taking, but the former run-on has limited time to show a new staff his skills. Will he display enough to earn the spot over Ficken?
Prediction: Expect Gulla to start at punter, and Ficken to retain the placekicker role, at least to start the year. If Ficken struggles, however, Gulla should be able to claim the starting spot. With the depth at running back, I think either Belton or Akeel Lynch will hold one of the returner spots, and Thompkins will have the other. This will be the first time in a few years that Penn State will have breakaway speed at returner, and I think at least one kick will be returned for a touchdown for the first time since Chaz Powell did it in the the 2011 season opener.