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Penn State Football Preview: Special Teams Lives And Dies With Freshmen

With the first game of the season fast approaching, the Nittany Lions released their first depth chart of the season on Tuesday. Every year, there are a few surprises following the release of the depth chart, and the special teams unit is not without its question marks and talking points. Let’s take a quick look at how Penn State’s special teams will shape up this season.

Kicking Unit

After as competitive a kicking competition as any, true freshman Jake Pinegar will assume the field goal kicking responsibilities, while fellow true freshman Rafael Checa will take charge of kickoffs — at least for now.

The Nittany Lions had as many as five different kickers vying for playing time this off-season to replace Tyler Davis. Punter Blake Gillikin even received some time at the kicking position this summer.

“We have a rotation set up that we have them split off, certain guys are on their own one day and other guys are on their own the next day,” Special Teams Coordinator Phil Galiano said. “Just like every position, we’re going to compete in everything we do and put them in challenging situations and give them an opportunity for those guys to go compete and win the job.”

Gillikin will serve as the holder on field goal attempts, and fifth-year senior Kyle Vasey will serve as the long snapper. There’s not much to see here.

Punter

No surprises here either, as Blake Gillikin will once again handle the punting duties for the Nittany Lions this season. Gillikin’s 43.2 yards per punt average was the third best average in the Big Ten last season.

Gillikin’s right leg will be a crucial weapon in the battle for field position. DeAndre Thompkins noted last week that fielding kicks from Blake Gillikin is a challenge in practice every day.

“You got a dude who kicks sixty yards like it’s easy, so that’ll always challenge you,” Thompkins said. “He always kicks it kind of different every time.”

Kickoff Returner

Redshirt freshman KJ Hamler will need to fill the play-making void left behind by Saquon Barkley in the kick return game. Hamler spent much of his first season on campus recovering from an ACL injury he suffered during his senior year of high school and now appears ready to make an impact.

For Galiano, trust and playmaking ability were the two biggest factors when deciding who would return kickoffs this season.

“What we want is a guy that every time he touches the ball can score, and a guy that we can trust that’s going to make great decisions and take care of the football because that’s the most important thing,” Galiano said.

Backup running backs Journey Brown and Ricky Slade could also feature as kick returners this season, so look out for a whole lot of speed and athleticism.

Punt Returner

DeAndre Thompkins will resume his role as punt returner again this season. Thompkins averaged 13.3 yards per return last season and returned one punt for a touchdown.

Thompkins also fits Galiano’s description of a playmaker that the staff can trust to make solid decisions with the ball.

“He’s able to score whenever he touches the ball,” Galiano said. “He’s also a veteran guy who makes great decisions. He’s going to take care of the football and go make a fair catch when he needs to, or run up and catch the ball so it doesn’t hit the ground and we lose yardage.”

KJ Hamler and John Reid could also receive time returning punts, but expect Thompkins, who garnered All-Big Ten punt return honors last season, to carry the load.

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About the Author

Matthew Fox

Matt is a Senior from Lansdale Pennsylvania majoring in Broadcast Journalism. He loves sports, and is still patiently waiting for the Philadelphia Flyers to win a Stanley Cup. If you would ever like to reach out to Matt you can email him at matthewfox@onwardstate.com.

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