Blue-White Game Countdown / 21 Days: Special Teams Preview
Editor’s note: This is part of a daily series counting down to Penn State’s Blue-White Game April 18.
Spring football is well underway in Happy Valley, and we’re just three weeks — 21 days — away from the Blue-White Game. With that in mind, it’s time to begin our position previews with Penn State football’s special teams unit before diving into the defense and then finishing with the offense.
While there are punters and kick/punt returners to worry about, the most noteworthy battle within the special teams unit falls on one big question: Who can fill Sam Ficken’s big shoes?
Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, star kicker Sam Ficken is headed to the professional ranks, leaving a substantial void at the position with his departure. While there are plenty of serviceable replacements on Penn State’s roster, none come close to the type of player Ficken was, at least as far as we know now. Whoever wins the job this summer will have some big shoes to fill.
Although Ficken is gone, there is talent on this team, and we’ll get to know these players better as we get closer to summer camp. As it currently stands, redshirt freshman Joey Julius and redshirt sophomore Chris Gulla are the main contenders for the starting job this fall. The two will duke it out from now until the end of the summer to decide who will head into the regular season as Penn State’s starting kicker.
Gulla was able to see the field as a redshirt freshman in 2014, starting the season as the team’s starting punter. He was swapped around midseason for freshman Daniel Pasquariello, who was a relative unknown to most fans before taking over for Gulla. Gulla’s main issue was inconsistency, as his inability to continually boot the ball deep didn’t sit too well with the coaching staff. His punting days are a thing of the past now, as he’s been permanently moved to kicker – the position he was recruited to play.
The 244-pound Julius brings some notable size to the position, given his rather husky frame. More importantly, that big frame brings with it an even bigger leg, which will certainly play in Julius’ favor. Redshirt freshman Troy Stivason, sophomore Yannik Haller, and freshman Nick Boumerhi represent the rest of Penn State’s returning kickers.
The obvious question mark focuses on the player who will replace Ficken, and how effective that guy will be. There are plenty of unknowns, as neither Julius nor Gulla have kicked in a live game, meaning fans haven’t had an opportunity to watch either player – save for Julius kicking in pregame warmups. On the subject of effectiveness, it’s only natural to question how either player would handle the spotlight. Kicking in Holuba Hall is vastly different than kicking under the bright lights of Beaver Stadium.
Jullius’ most likeable trait is his leg strength. From watching him kick in practice, he has no trouble splitting the uprights with room to spare. What’s more is that he’s shown the ability to kick under pressure. Julius ended two straight practices with kicks from 50+ distance, while being squirted with water by coach Franklin. These were no ordinary kicks, however. If Julius made the kick, the team was spared from post-practice sprints. If he missed, the team would have to run. Though this and kicking with the game on the line are two completely different situations, Julius faced the scorn of his fellow teammates if he missed. Two-for-two is a good reflection of his ability to handle pressure.
Gulla possesses some leg strength as well, but he’s known to be an incredibly accurate kicker. His physical makeup is much different from Julius’ (also known as “Big Toe”), as is his kicking style. Both players bring appealing skills to the table, and both could become serviceable replacements.
Despite the general unknowns regarding both potential kicker replacements, this much is certain: Both are talented players, and the pair could make the coaching staff’s job tougher than it already is when it comes down to naming a starter. This competition may come down to the bitter end if neither creates separation this spring, meaning it’s on Julius and Gulla to grab hold of the reins and stand out in camp. Neither player will make Penn State fans forget about Sam Ficken, but consistency at the kicker position will help them breathe a bit easier come September.
While no team plans to punt the ball, it’s an inevitability. The only punter remaining on Penn State’s roster who has seen field time is Daniel Pasquariello, a sophomore out of Melbourne, Australia. Pasquariello may not have blown fans away last year, but there’s no doubt that the Aussie is the heavy favorite to land Penn State’s starting punter job as we approach the season. The alternative is Robby Liebel, a redshirt freshman from the IMG Academy. It would come as a big surprise if Biebel manages to earn the starting role come spring, but Pasquariello’s hold on the job certainly isn’t rock solid. If he struggles early in the season, Liebel is likely the next man up.
When it comes to kick and punt returners, two positions that require explosiveness and a good pair of hands, there isn’t yet a clear answer. The favorite to become the next Nittany Lion return man is likely redshirt freshman DeAndre Thompkins. The speedy and shifty Thompkins, who is a bit undersized at 5-foot-11 and 187 pounds, has tried his hand at returning kicks and catching punts in spring practice. So far, James Franklin has had nothing but positive things to say about Thompkins, who could take on a big role for Penn State in 2015, whether it be on the specials unit, on offense, or both. Another serviceable option for the position is cornerback Grant Haley, who earned experience on special teams last season.
Stay tuned for the rest of our position previews, as we’ll take a look at the defensive line tomorrow.