Football Preview: Special Teams Hopes For Revamp
Penn State has battled with a good number of losses this season on both sides of the ball. None of that applies to special teams, where the fluctuating starting roles have another wrench thrown into them with several scholarship freshmen now aboard.
Every major piece from the kicking game last season is returning. Kickers Joey Julius and Tyler Davis as well as punters Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla rotated in and out of starting roles throughout the 2015 season.
Pasquariello started the season and reconquered the role from Gulla after the Army game. While often inconsistent on the field, Pasquariello added some sort of stability to the position.
The kicking game was another story. Julius started off the season as both the field goal kicker and the kick-off specialist. This continued until a rough first half led to Tyler Davis taking over field goals and extra points in the second half against Indiana.
Julius regained his confidence and started the next two games, before being replaced midway through the Illinois game. From there, field goals and extra points belonged to Davis while kick-offs rotated between Julius, Davis, and Gulla through the rest of the season.
Hectic, inconsistent, and faulty could describe the kicking game last season. In some strange-twisted world, Penn State missed more extra points than it did field goals and managed to gift opponents great field position six times with kicks out of bounds.
The struggles were clear and Franklin’s answer: bring in a whole new crop of scholarship freshmen. After the plane recruitment incident and a Jim Harbaugh sleepover, the Nittany Lions landed ex-Rutgers commit three-star kicker Alex Barbir. Long before Barbir, punter Blake Gillikin signed on to challenge Pasquariello and Gulla.
The two Georgia natives bring competition to a Penn State kicking game that didn’t feature a scholarship athlete in 2015. Add in redshirt freshman Jordan Wombacker and the Nittany Lions now have seven kickers and punters on their roster.
In the depth chart released Tuesday, Penn State named freshman punter Gillikin and redshirt junior kicker Davis as the starters.
Gillikin’s selection has been somewhat toyed since spring ball. The three-star prospect was ranked third nationally among all of the 2016 recruiting class punters.
Davis will continue his starting role that he picked up towards the end of last season. For what it’s worth, he didn’t miss a field goal in eight attempts and was also perfect on extra points. The concern, as it was last year, will be his range. He largely wasn’t trusted to take longer attempts, with just one field goal longer than 40 yards.
Franklin could opt to have his kickers specialize on field goals or kick-offs as he did at the end of last season. This could open the door for Julius or Barbir to gain a starting role.
The kicking game has drawn harsh criticisms, but on the other end of the spectrum, kick and punt returning hasn’t drawn much fanfare either. With the inherent dangerous possibilities of kick-offs on players and the fact they may be eliminated all together at some point, it’s no surprise Penn State, or many other schools, hasn’t invested in being much more than average.
Based on the comments of special teams coordinator and running backs coach Charles Huff, the Nittany Lions are aiming to go bigger and better in 2016 even with the potential risks.
Koa Farmer returned kicks last season, but was not listed on the depth chart this year despite Huff’s claims of a significant role for the redshirt sophomore safety.
Huff on his kick returners: “We want to be able to make the big plays.” Says Koa Farmer has grown significantly, could be a key contributor.
— Onward State (@OnwardState) August 4, 2016
Currently listed on the depth chart as kick returners are Nick Scott, Brandon Polk, Miles Sanders, and yes, Saquon Barkley
The real risk/reward opportunity comes in the form of Barkley. There’s the obvious risk factor that comes in sending a star player out for kick-offs, but someone as dynamic as the sophomore star could have a real impact.
All four players that returned punts at some point last season return for 2016. The depth chart is led by Gregg Garrity, not Deandre Thompkins who received the majority of opportunities punt returning last year.
The turnaround starts Saturday for special teams. The matchup with Kent State could provide needed opportunities to gain confidence if the competition-fueled special teams core can live up to expectations.