Special Teams Rebuild Should Finally Bear Fruit This Fall
Some believe the secret to success in major college football lies along the offensive line or in the hands of the team’s signal caller, but more often than not you simply won’t win games without a strong special teams base. That sentiment holds true at Penn State.
James Franklin and his staff have two seasons and a pair of recruiting cycles under their belts which has allowed them ample time to assemble a proficient kicking and punting game. While progress was occasionally obscured by some head-scratching blunders that indeed cost the Nittany Lions dearly (see: Maryland 2014, Northwestern 2015), this coming fall should provide more highlights than heartbreak.
Let’s start with the freshmen Penn State is bringing in this summer — a talented duo from the Peach State. Punter Blake Gillikin (Atlanta, Ga.) and kicker Alex Barbir (Cumming, Ga.) are two of the top prospects in the country at their respective positions, and it would be a fairly large surprise to see the future roommates not secure starting jobs during preseason camp.
Aussie native Daniel Pasqueriello and Chris Gulla have showed improvement over the past two years, but neither has been spectacular at booting the pigskin with any semblance of consistency. Penn State’s net punting average increased a mere 1.4 yards from 2014 to 2015 (34.3 to 35.7). but at least Pasquariello came tantalizingly close to scratching the 40-yard baseline (39.9 average). Gillikin, the nation’s second-best punter from the Class of 2016 according to the 247Sports Composite, boasts one heck of a right leg and even set the Westminster School record for longest field goal with a 56-yard bomb as time expired in a playoff game this past fall.
Barbir, who flipped his verbal from Rutgers to the Nittany Lions late in the recruiting process after Quinn Nordin’s decommitment in favor of Michigan, was the eighth-ranked kicker nationally out of South Forsyth High School. He’ll hit the ground kicking when he arrives on campus later this month in hopes of beating out the walk-on platoon of Joey Julius and Tyler Davis — both of whom were impressive inside 40 yards but struggled with the longer attempts and on kickoffs. Barbir is the first full-ride kicker on the roster since Sam Ficken and, though he certainly won’t be handed the job, you simply don’t dish out offers to specialists without the assurance that they’ll contribute early in their careers.
Charles Huff’s return units enjoyed a notable bump in success from year one to year two, as the kickoff platoon was largely manned by Koa Farmer and Nick Scott. The duo helped Penn State to a 211-yard increase in total yards (731 to 942) and should factor in once again this fall.
You can make the case that Farmer is the best pound-for-pound athlete on the roster, as the safety out of Lake View Terrace, Calif., has speed to burn and the size to blast through gaps at 6-foot-1, 223-pounds. After spending his first two years on campus totting the rock, Scott made the move from the deep stable of running backs to safety this offseason. Perhaps true freshmen Miles Sanders and Zech McPhearson will get some early looks in the return game as well.
Though often steady, Penn State’s punt returners haven’t yielded many explosive, field-flipping plays over the past few years. However, the coveted speed that the coaching staff has worked so hard to recruit is on campus in spades with slot guys like DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk, who showed encouraging signs of progress during their first season on the field. With a full ride now in his back pocket, former walk-on Gregg Garrity, Jr. — a senior receiver from Pittsburgh’s North Allegheny — could very well wrestle the starting punt returner job away for good with a strong preseason camp. Backup running back Mark Allen should also play a factor in the competition this summer.
Beaver Stadium is itching for a special teams touchdown and 2016 could finally be the year that breaks the drought. We know the Nittany Lions have plenty of young talent to work with this season, so it will surely be interesting to see who trots out against Kent State on Sept. 3.