Penn State has no shortage of options in the return game, making it one of the more intriguing position battles of James Franklin’s fourth spring in State College.
John Reid surprised with his efficiency last season at punt returner, handling most of the duties (22 for 166 yards) before the coaches decided to give the starting corner a breather in favor of senior Gregg Garrity. It’s unknown when Reid will be back after suffering a reported knee injury in practice last week, but freshman Lamont Wade and former walk-on Josh McPhearson should provide plenty of competition for the vacant spot.
They were seen fielding punts alongside running back Mark Allen at Wednesday’s practice, while freshman receiver KJ Hamler, who’s working back from a knee injury of his own, looked on. DeAndre Thompkins also has experience returning punts for the Nittany Lions. He exploded for 58 yards on his first career attempt against Buffalo in 2015, but dealt with ball-security issues at times.
Charles Huff has shown a desire to get young skill position players their first taste of Power Five football in the return game. As a true freshman, Miles Sanders emerged as the primary kick returner last season, showing glimpses of breakaway speed but never quite putting it all together. He and Saquon Barkley traded opportunities in the Rose Bowl, but Barkley will likely be too busy burning defenders on offense next fall.
Huff could end up taking a long look at incoming freshmen Mac Hippenhammer and Journey Brown during camp this summer. Both were late-rising recruits who showed outstanding speed on the high school level. Hippenhammer is a touted shortstop and will also play for Rob Cooper’s Nittany Lions during the offseason, but it’s his effortless talent as a return man that has the football program most excited about his arrival.
Brown was a three-sport athlete for Meadville Area, where he enjoyed a ridiculously productive career despite flying somewhat under the radar, at least at first. Aside from his famous 10-touchdown, 722-yard performance in a 107-90 win over DuBois in 2015, Brown also earned PIAA state gold in the 60-meter dash this past indoor track season with a 6.87 — the 10th best high school time in the nation. His basketball team fell to Archbishop Wood in the Class 5A state final a few weeks ago in Hershey. The 5’11” running back can really soar above the rim.
Junior receiver Brandon Polk, who missed the majority of last season due to injury, could also play a part in the kick return competition this summer once he’s ready to go. Franklin stressed the importance of not just having speed back there, but the intelligence to make split-second decisions and an overall comfort level under duress.
Penn State’s special teams as a whole dramatically improved last season, but it’s been ages since a Nittany Lion returner found the end zone. Chaz Powell capitalized on the season-opening kick against Indiana State in 2011 and Derrick Williams brought back a punt at Wisconsin in October 2008.
The next step in Penn State’s special teams development centers on generating that elusive return game touchdown.