It's easy to overlook special teams, but as fans learned last season, a bad unit can quickly kill a season. With a new coach and some experienced specialists, the 2019 unit should take a big step forward.
The 2018 Penn State special teams were anything but that at times during the season. In the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky, it came to a head as the Nittany Lions failed on a fake punt, allowed a punt return for a touchdown and missed two field goals. In February, Penn State announced that special teams coordinator Phil Galiano had taken a position with the New Orleans Saints and less than a week later, announced the hire of Joe Lorig to take over the unit.
Although the gaffes throughout the season stand out, KJ Hamler provided a new spark in a kick return game that had been sporadic in years prior. Overall, the inconsistency of special teams cost Penn State last season and it’s now up to Lorig to right the ship.
We are probably going to need them all and we also want to see more of our offensive players having a bigger impact on special teams than we've had in the past. We've got way too many athletes and way too many good players for them not impacting in every possible aspect they can. - James Franklin
No. 93 Blake Gillikin (Sr./Sr., 6’2, 196 lbs.)
No. 49 Cade Pollard (So./Fr., 5’11, 225 lbs.)
No. 98 Bradley King (So./So., 6’2, 199 lbs.)
No. 97 Carson Landis (Jr./So., 6’2, 205 lbs.)
The punter situation is clear as returning captain Blake Gillikin is back and will handle the duties. In 2018, Gillikin had a down year after setting lofty standards in his first two seasons. He indicated that there were lingering injury issues, but flashed his old self the Citrus Bowl booming a 71-yard punt. He was named to the Associated Press All-Bowl team after averaging 51.2 yards per punt in that game. At Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Gillikin spoke about the upcoming season.
No. 92 Jake Pinegar (So./So., 6’2, 196 lbs.)
No. 98 Jordan Stout (Jr./So., 6’3, 205 lbs.)
No. 90 Rafael Checa (So./So., 6’2, 195 lbs.)
No. 99 Justin Tobin (Sr./Jr., 6’2, 208 lbs.)
No. 95 Vlad Hilling (So./Fr., 5’10, 226 lbs.)
Taking over for Tyler Davis as a true freshman, kicker Jake Pinegar made just 16 of 24 field goals and only 5 of 11 from 40+ yards. The Iowa native made 53 of 55 extra points and finished the season with 101 points, which set a Penn State freshman scoring record.
In June, former Virginia Tech kicker Jordan Stout announced he was transferring to Penn State. Stout will likely handle the kickoff duties, a role he thrived in with the Hokies. The big legged kicker had 60 touchbacks on 70 kicks and it looks like that will continue.
Watch (and hear) the anticipation grow among @PennStateFball players as transfer @JORDANSTOUT92 prepares to blast a kickoff at practice. Will be fun to see this sort of reaction from 107k at Beaver Stadium. pic.twitter.com/GEvv6Dz35j— Grace Brennan (@GracexBrennan) August 21, 2019
Rafael Checa handled the majority of the kickoffs last season and will be available if needed. The rising sophomore had 37 touchbacks on 79 kicks last season.
No 1 KJ Hamler (Jr./So., 5’9, 176 lbs.)
No. 11 Micah Parsons (So./So., 6’3, 245 lbs.)
No. 4 Journey Brown (Jr./So., 5’11, 206 lbs.)
No. 3 Ricky Slade (So./So., 5’9, 198 lbs.)
No. 21 Noah Cain (Fr./Fr., 5’10, 206 lbs.)
No. 2 Keaton Ellis (Fr./Fr., 5’11, 190 lbs.)
No. 5 Jahan Dotson (So./So., 5’11, 175 lbs.)
No. 29 John Reid (5th, Sr., 5’10, 181 lbs.)
No. 12 Mac Hippenhammer (Jr./So., 5’11, 182 lbs.)
KJ Hamler returns and led Penn State last season with 20 kickoff returns for a 26.15 yards per return average, including a 67-yard return against Iowa. Hamler also fielded fourteen punts for an average of 6.86 yards. He will be the primary returner, but mixed in could be several younger players.
With apologies to C.J Thorpe and his 10-yard kickoff return against Wisconsin, the only player returning this season with any kind of return experience is Jahan Dotson. With Hamler taking on a larger role on offense, Dotson could be called upon to return punts and utilize his open field skill. John Reid is back to form and he had 22 punts in 2016 for an average of 7.8 yards. The other player that might get some chances at returning punts is wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer who returned both kicks and punts in high school.
On the kickoff returns, Hamler will be the primary returner and alongside him may be one of the more interesting storylines heading into the season. Linebacker Micah Parsons could line up as the secondary returner and not since the days of Bill O’Brien and Gerald Hodges, has a linebacker been listed as a returner. It will remain to be seen, but the mix of size and speed has caught the attention of Joe Lorig. Running backs Journey Brown, Ricky Slade, Noah Cain, and cornerback Keaton Ellis could all get a shot throughout the season.
With the talent that Penn State has amassed over the years, Joe Lorig will have plenty of talent to work with this season. How quickly the players buy into his new system will go a long way in turning a negative from a season ago into a dangerous weapon for the Nittany Lions.