Special teams coordinator Charles Huff ran through the candidates to take over Penn State’s primary kick and punt return duties this season Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
First, Huff spoke about his options to return kickoffs come September.
“Miles Sanders as a freshman last year did a very good job for us. I expect him to be much improved. You’ve gotta remember, Miles Sanders is a great athlete, but Miles Sanders never returned kicks in high school so every time he was back there it was a new experience,” Huff said.
“Nick Scott, who we’ve seen back there before, is a guy who has done it as well in games. Brandon Polk is another guy. KJ Hamler would be in that mix as well based on his progression on offense.”
On top of his spot work at running back, Sanders took command as Penn State’s main man in the end zone, tallying 33 returns for 688 yards (20.8 average) — with a career long of 48 to open the Iowa game.
“It got me used to the speed of the game,” Sanders said. “The speed of the game from high school to college football is a big difference. Everybody’s fast, everybody’s strong. I’m gonna use that for when I get on offense or if I go back on kick return.”
As for the best piece of advice Sanders has received from Huff, who also serves as his position coach: “It catches up to you when it catches up to you.”
The Pittsburgh native was considered the nation’s top-ranked running back prospect for the 2016 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite. He’ll again compete with Mark Allen and Andre Robinson be Saquon Barkley’s backup.
“We feel really good about the guys we have,” Huff said. “That’s probably one area going into summer camp that we feel like we can make a big improvement in — not because we’re gonna draw up some great play or we’ve got this secret weapon. The guys are a year older, they understand the scheme a little bit more.”
Like Sanders, Scott has also logged plenty of reps on kickoff return. Over the past two seasons, Penn State’s new special teams captain posted 448 yards on just 19 attempts (23.6). Scott’s personal best came on a 58-yard burst in the driving rain versus Buffalo in 2015.
Hamler, a four-star recruit who arrived on campus in January, is coming off a left knee injury that forced him to miss his senior season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He’s originally from Pontiac, Mich., playing his first three years at Allen Robinson’s alma mater Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound speedster could potentially see the field this fall if he’s healthy enough to contribute.
Polk, who was high school teammates with Trace McSorley at Briar Woods in Ashburn, Va., is returning from an undisclosed season-ending injury of his own. After seeing minimal action early in the year, Polk’s request for a medical redshirt was approved last month. He’ll be a sophomore this fall.
Polk mentioned his mind pretty much goes blank as he tracks the ball high in the air, focusing solely on accomplishing his goal.
“I would not say that there’s a lot going on in there. Just kinda do my job, catch it and get the best return that I can,” he said. “My biggest strength is my speed.”
Aside from Polk and Hamler, who are pulling double duty, the other contenders to make a splash on punt returns this fall are Mark Allen, DeAndre Thompkins, newly minted scholarship running back Josh McPhearson, and true freshman receiver Mac Hippenhammer.
“We would hope to settle probably closer to the [Akron] game because that means we’ve got really good competition,” Huff said. “We wanna allow all those guys an opportunity to show what they have. It’s obviously gonna come down to who’s the most consistent over the course of time and then getting in the game and being able to do it in front of 107,000.”