2016 Comprehensive Offseason Primer: Special Teams
Penn State’s special teams units have lacked consistent explosiveness since the days of Derrick Williams, and later, Chaz Powell. The Nittany Lions haven’t returned a kickoff to the house since Powell did so on the first play of 2011 against Indiana State.
But the recent shortcomings don’t stop in the return game, as paltry punting has largely kept the Nittany Lions at a disadvantage in the all-important battle for field position, which came back to bite them a handful of times the past two seasons.
However, 2016 could finally be the year that special teams coordinator Charles Huff puts all the pieces together. First, we broke down the offense then tackled the defense. Now, let’s take a closer look at the future of Penn State’s special teams.
While many assumed a year without the clutch leg of Sam Ficken would spell doom for Penn State’s kicking game, Joey Julius and Tyler Davis performed well above expectations, combining to boot the Big Ten’s best field-goal percentage (18/20 = 90 percent). Julius won the starting job during the summer thanks to his “Big Toe” but a pair of missed PATs against both Indiana and Illinois forced James Franklin to re-evaluate his status.
Julius continued to man Penn State’s kickoff duty but Davis was handed the keys to the car when three points were on the line. Both were impressive high school soccer players who duked it out during the inaugural Blue-White Game kicking competition, which solely consisted of walk-ons.
Huff and the rest of the coaching staff clearly noticed a void of talent at the position, putting the full-court press on the nation’s consensus No. 1 Class of 2016 kicker: three-star Rockford, Mich., native Quinn Nordin. The USA Today First-Team All-USA selection — who was also Rockford High’s punter — committed to the Nittany Lions via private jet in mid-July, but his recruitment is far from over. Jim Harbaugh’s recent sleepover at the Nordin household in hopes of swaying the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder to flip his commitment to the home-state Wolverines proves as much. Some folks take their recruiting pretty seriously.
— Rockford Corner Bar (@rockfordcorner) January 15, 2016
Nordin, who’s also a highly-touted lacrosse player, made multiple trips to Ann Arbor throughout the season and just finished his official visit to Michigan. Penn State will host Nordin this coming weekend, along with the rest of the 2016 commits and remaining targets, then it’s off to Baylor for one last official visit just before National Signing Day. If Nordin sticks with his original pledge, he’s certainly on the inside track to becoming a day-one starter in Happy Valley. No offense to Julius or Davis, but you simply don’t offer a specialist a scholarship if you aren’t confident in his ability to play right away.
Penn State’s punting woes continued to be a major roadblock in 2015. Daniel Pasquariello cemented himself as the starter after going toe-to-toe with Chris Gulla — who turned in a splendid performance against Rutgers but failed to build on that momentum — early in the season. Pasquariello saw his average improve from 37.3 as a true freshman in 2014 to 39.9 this past fall, but the Aussie dealt with his fair share of criticism after struggling to keep opponents pinned deep in their own territory when it mattered most. Gulla is now the team’s most reliable holder.
Pasquariello will have to prove himself yet again when a fresh face arrives on campus this summer with his sights set on the starting role, but he and long snapper Ty Yazujian went viral and made the rapper Plies proud by “running off on da plug twice” during the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Three-star Blake Gillikin, who hails from Atlanta, Ga., turned down multiple offers — including Georgia — before settling on the Nittany Lions in mid-June. Gillikin is considered the second-best punter in his class, according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings, and helped Westminster School to a AAA Georgia State Championship his senior season. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound prospect is also a heralded kicker and will likely be Penn State’s contingency plan should Nordin go elsewhere.
Want to see a school record 56-yd FG? Check out this bomb from Blake Gillikin to give the Cats a 31-7 halftime lead! pic.twitter.com/SHxBhPVOaD — Westminster Wildcats (@WestminsterATH) November 28, 2015
The Nittany Lions haven’t had a scholarship punter on their roster since two-way standout Anthony Fera, who transferred to Texas in the immediate aftermath of the sanctions. If everything goes according to plan, Penn State fans will have a two-headed monster named “Quake” to look forward to in the coming years.
Penn State averaged 21.9 yards per kickoff return in 2015, which isn’t exactly the type of game-changing output Huff was looking for this past season. However, there’s reason to believe the Nittany Lions’ fortunes will improve next fall given rising redshirt sophomore Koa Farmer’s speed and vision. Farmer, who will also push Malik Golden for the starting strong safety nod, is the first Nittany Lion to play his high school ball in California since Lydell Sargeant.
Farmer posted 405 return yards on 18 attempts (22.5 average) with a long of 57 against Illinois, while running back and classmate Nick Scott tallied 310 yards on 13 attempts (23.8 average), rattling off a 58-yarder on the opening kickoff against Buffalo in the driving rain. True freshman slot receiver Brandon Polk — the fastest Nittany Lion on the roster — made a splash his first year on campus by showcasing his wheels on jet sweeps and, as the season wore on, in the return game.
Polk took 10 kickoffs 209 yards (20.9 average) with a long of 33. The high school teammate of Trace McSorley at Briar Woods in Ashburn, Va., Polk finished third on the team in rushing with 173 yards and a score, while adding 57 yards and another touchdown through the air. Perhaps the coaching staff will even give incoming four-star cornerback Zech McPhearson a look, given his Chris Davis-like field goal return in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl.
Rising redshirt sophomore slot receiver DeAndre Thompkins won the starting punt returner job from classmate Mark Allen early in the season after breaking off a 58-yarder of his own against Buffalo. The Hubert, N.C., native finished with 23 attempts for 178 yards (7.7 average) but had issues holding onto the football in key situations, which led the coaching staff to promote walk-on receiver Gregg “Pook” Garrity, Jr. prior to the regular-season finale against Michigan State.
Thompkins has plenty of speed to burn, so if he can improve his consistency he’ll have a good shot at winning back the trust of his coaches. It will be interesting to see if Huff gives Polk a shot on punts too following an offseason in Dwight Galt’s strength and conditioning program, which will allow the 5-foot-9, 170-pounder to pack on some more muscle in anticipation of the hard-hitting Big Ten gunners he would be sure to face.
Although Garrity is the lightest Nittany Lion on the roster, checking in at 5-foot-10, 157 pounds, the sure-handed Pittsburgh product can make defenders miss in his own right and would be a safe option if neither Thompkins nor Polk wrestles the job away this spring or summer.
Penn State has plenty of room to grow when it comes to its play on special teams, but 2016 is looking up in all four facets with a solid mix of instant-impact freshmen and seasoned veterans. Look for big-time improvements from Huff’s boys this offseason. We’ll check in on their progress when the 2016 Blue-White Game rolls around on Saturday, April 16.