Projecting Penn State Football’s 2023 Starting Lineup: Special Teams
In his second year as Penn State football’s special teams coordinator, Stacy Collins has once again been tasked with overhauling a unit littered with turnover.
Last year, Collins was charged with picking a replacement for kicking phenom Jordan Stout and is again facing uncertainty after the departure of punter Barney Amor and placekicker Jake Pinegar. Amor leaves the program with the second-highest career punting average, while Pinegar exits at No. 2 on the all-time Penn State scoring list.
Luckily for Collins, he has no shortage of options. Currently, there are three players locked in a battle at placekicker and four players trying to earn the job of starting punter. However, James Franklin and Collins have been extremely tight-lipped about who will be booting the ball against West Virginia in just five days.
Based on the hints that they’ve slipped throughout fall camp, let’s take a look at a potential special teams depth chart.
- Starter: Alex Felkins
- Reserves: Sander Sahaydak, Ryan Barker
While Sander Sahaydak possesses three campaigns under his belt donning the blue and white, experienced transfer Alex Felkins should likely edge out the Pennsylvania native for the starting role.
Felkins, who transferred from Columbia after last season, is prepped to begin his first stint at the Power Five level. During his time in the Ivy League, Felkins made 36 of his 54 field goal attempts with a career-long of 53 yards. During Penn State’s Media Day, Collins said that both Felkins and Sahaydak had been striking the ball extremely well throughout the early parts of camp, and both are expected to see the field often this fall.
Sahaydak, on the other hand, comes into his redshirt sophomore season as the only player to have seen action for the Nittany Lions last year. Sahaydak spent much of last season splitting kickoff duties with punter Gabriel Nwosu. During Penn State’s matchup with Rutgers, Sahaydak made a 20-yard field goal and an extra point, his first of both in his career.
Collins was also impressed by true freshman Ryan Barker, who has held his own throughout his first camp with the team. Barker was also one of the only Penn State football players to #SetTheStandard on the first day of classes this semester. That has to be good for something, right?
- Starter: Riley Thompson
- Reserves: Alex Bacchetta, Gabriel Nwosu, Mitchell Groh
Franklin was disappointed with the punting during a Blue-White Game that saw Alex Bacchetta average just 33.4 yards per boot on five attempts. Riley Thompson, conversely, skyrocketed a 62-yarder on his only attempt of the game.
Thompson has the most experience out of the group trying for the top spot after transferring to Penn State from Florida Atlantic for his senior year. Thompson was the Owls’ starting punter during the 2022 season, averaging 45.4 yards per punt. Bacchetta saw action in two games last season to preserve his redshirt, averaging 40 yards per punt on four attempts.
Nwosu handled kickoff duties along with Sahaydak last season, kicking off 18 times and garnering seven touchbacks. At 6’6″ and 274 pounds, Nwosu has a big leg that could be valuable to the Nittany Lions this season. Collins says that both Nwosu and Mitchell Groh have thrown themselves into the mix nicely during fall camp.
- Starter: Gabriel Nwosu
- Reserves: Sander Sahaydak, Ryan Barker
Because of his massive leg, Nwosu will most likely retain the starting spot for kickoffs this year. Last year, Sahaydak kicked off 11 times and notched two touchbacks. Barker could also see some action this year, similar to the roles Sahaydak and Nwosu played last year.
- Starter: Nick Singleton
- Reserves: Kaytron Allen, Omari Evans, King Mack, Trey Potts
At Media Day, Collins gave props to the strength and speed staff for creating so many speedy returners for him to choose from ahead of the upcoming season.
Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen handled return duties last year and will likely continue to do so this year. Last season, Singleton returned 14 kicks for 349 yards, including a 100-yard touchdown return.
Evans, Mack, and Potts were all praised by Collins, and Potts’ special teams experience from Minnesota will open the door for opportunities this season.
- Starter: Daequan Hardy
- Reserves: Kaden Saunders, Zion Tracy
Departed senior Parker Washington took the majority of punt returns last year, recording 99 all-purpose yards with a long of 30 yards on 18 attempts.
This year, elusive cornerback Daequan Hardy should take over as the punt returner. Collins said that Hardy has been taking reps at both punt and kick return and has grown into the role nicely.
Behind Hardy is redshirt freshman Kaden Saunders, who saw action during two games last year. True freshman cornerback Zion Tracy will also hope to see the field as a punt returner, but the majority of snaps will likely go to Hardy.
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