Special teams play has proved critical in several Penn State games over the past few seasons. No Penn State fan will forget the 2016 Ohio State game, and many would like to forget the blocked punt in the 2017 rematch. Like with any team, a special teams play can turn around a game, and as was the case in 2016, it could turn around an entire season.
Penn State’s recruiting success has been key in improving the special teams during James Franklin’s tenure. Penn State is solid in some aspects, but heading into 2018 there are still some questions that will need to be answered in short time.
Penn State used Saquon Barkley as the primary kick returner last year, and though it was a controversial decision at first, it proved to be an effective one. Barkley averaged 28.4 yards per return, and opened up the Indiana and Ohio State games with touchdown returns.
The Nittany Lions must also find a replacement for Tyler Davis. The 2016 Lou Groza finalist struggled in 2017, going just 9-for-17 and lacking consistency on kickoffs as well after the departure of Joey Julius.
Blake Gillikin remained one of the top punters in the Big Ten, and DeAndre Thompkins emerged as one of the top returners in the league. Both players will highlight a solid punt and return units this fall.
- No. 93 Blake Gillikin - P/K (Jr. 6-2, 193 Lbs.)
- No. 92 Jake Pinegar K (Fr. 6-2, 195 Lbs.)
- No. 97 Carson Landis K (Fr. 6-2. 195 Lbs.)
- No. 99 Justin Tobin K (Jr. 6-2, 191 Lbs.)
- No. 95 Vlad Hilling K (Fr. 5-10, 217 Lbs)
- No. 90 Rafael Checa K (Fr. 6-2, 05 Lbs.)
Penn State’s punting position is much clearer than the place kicking position heading into 2018. Gillikin has been as advertised after arriving as one of the top punters in the nation out of high school. In April, he was selected as the special teams captain, and was named to the Ray Guy Award Watch List last month. In his career, Gillkin has averaged 43.0 yards per punt, with 25 punts downed inside the 10. In 2017, Gillikin ranked 10th in the nation in punt efficiency, and 35th nationally with a 43.2 average.
Kickoffs and place kicking are undoubtedly the biggest unknown for the special teams unit. Davis is gone, and Alex Barbir has transferred to Liberty. Before his transfer, Penn State received a commitment from kicker Jake Pinegar. The Iowa native is the lone scholarship place kicker, and figures to be in the mix, if not the front runner, for kickoffs and/or field goals. The kicking duties will require some heavy lifting for a team looking to compete for a conference title, but generally when you lose an experienced kicker in college football, this is the case. The 6’2 Pinegar played defensive back in high school and was also a track standoutl. Leg strength should not be an issue for him, with two 60 yard field goals from his prep days under his belt.
The other candidates vying for the job are walk-ons Carson Landis, Justin Tobin, Vlad Hilling and Rafael Checa. Of that group, Landis has the upper hand as the only kicker in April’s Blue-White game. However, reports from camp have Hilling and Checa showing promise as well.
- No. 3 DeAndre Thompkins PR (Sr. 5-11, 188 Lbs)
- No. 1 KJ Hamler PR/KR (Fr. 5-9, 176 Lbs.)
- No. 29 John Reid PR (Jr. 5-10, 186 Lbs.)
- No. 12 Mac Hippenhammer PR (Fr. 5-11, 185 Lbs.)
- No. 8 Mark Allen PR (Sr. 5-6, 190 Lbs.)
- No. 24 Miles Sanders KR (Jr. 5-11, 207 Lbs.)
- No. 32 Journey Brown KR (Fr. 5-11, 210 Lbs.)
- No. 4 Ricky Slade KR (Fr. 5-9, 185 Lbs.)
DeAndre Thomkpins is back as the primary punt returner for Penn State after taking over the job last year due to John Reid's knee injury. He wasted no time showing his ability when he scored the first touchdown of the season vs. Akron. Thompkins led the Big Ten in punt return average last year with a 13.3 yards per return average. After his previous struggles, including losing the job to Reid, Thompkins has bounced back in a big way.
KJ Hamler, John Reid, Mac Hippenhammer, and Mark Allen are possible backups for Thompkins should the situation arise. Hamler is an explosive player that has routinely turned heads since his arrival. He redshirted a season ago coming off an ACL injury in high school, but is one of those players the coaches would like to get involved. He has the quickness you love to see from your punt returners. Reid returned punts his freshman season, but after suffering an ACL injury last year, it seems like he would only be called upon as a last resort. Hippenhammer shined in the Blue White game and with plenty of depth at receiver, this is possibly a chance to get the ball in the hands of another playmaker. Allen has some experience returning punts as well, and like the previously mentioned receivers, his experience could prove worthy if called upon.
Miles Sanders returned kicks as a freshman and it’s pretty clear that if he was the best guy for the job, Franklin would turn to him. That seems unlikely, however, as Journey Brown, and the highly touted recruit Ricky Slade could factor in. Brown was a late add to the 2017 recruiting class and his speed is undeniable. He broke the longstanding Pennsylvania 100-meter dash record with a 10.43 time that was once set by gold-medal winning Leroy Burrell. Slade was a blue-chip recruit and has certainly started to show his talent after adjusting to the program and adding some good weight. If he is going to lose a redshirt, a likely outcome, kick returner seems like a place where he can get the ball in his hands.
Special teams have come a long way since Franklin's arrival in 2014. For all the talent that they have brought in, there has been no bigger area of improvement. That being said, there are certainly jobs available for the taking in 2018, and it’s on the coaches to determine who the right mix is for these jobs. Like anything else, these are plays that could change a game, but a special teams play is one that seems to have a lasting impact on a game.