A Special Year for Special Teams

Story posted September 12, 2019 in Sports, CommRadio by Connor Griffin

Penn State football's 2018 campaign was, in many ways, a year of setbacks. Coming off of back to back 11-win seasons, along with two straight New Year’s Six Bowl bids, the Nittany Lions struggled to reach nine wins last year. They were also unable to make it back to a premier bowl game, awarded instead with a matchup against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.

It was in that bowl game where many of the problems that hampered Penn State all season came to the forefront once again. Dropped passes, questionable playcalling—but perhaps the most glaring issue for the Nittany Lions was the inconsistency with the special teams unit.

Penn State missed two field goals, allowed a punt-return touchdown, and failed to execute on a fake punt in the 27-24 defeat. Questioned about the special teams woes in the postgame press conference, head coach James Franklin addressed the need for improvement within that unit moving forward.

“We’ll have tough conversations,” Franklin said. “We’ll do what we’ve got to do to get better, but it was not up to our standards today. It wasn’t up to our standards all year long.”

Shortly after the Citrus Bowl loss, special teams coordinator Phil Galiano left the program to pursue a coaching opportunity in the NFL. He was quickly replaced by Joe Lorig, who produced the most efficient special teams unit in the country during his first season at Memphis three years back. Upon arriving at Penn State, Lorig immediately went to work on establishing a new culture for the Nittany Lions’ special teams.

Helping to drive this culture is kickoff specialist Jordan Stout, a transfer from Virginia Tech. In his first game donning the blue and white, Stout drilled 13 touchbacks and tacked on a 53-yard field goal, which is tied for the sixth-longest field goal in Penn State history.

Last Saturday against Buffalo, the redshirt sophomore booted it out of the endzone seven more times, resulting in 20 touchbacks on 21 kickoffs this season. Through two games, he’s already more than halfway to surpassing Rafael Checa’s total from 2018—a mere 37 touchbacks through 12 contests.

Stout leads the nation in touchbacks thus far, with LSU’s Avery Atkins trailing behind with 18. The redshirt sophomore also leads the FBS in kickoff yards, and he is one of a select few kickers who have yet to allow a single return.

All statistics aside, the fact of the matter is that Penn State has attained the stability they’ve been yearning for on special teams. On a play with as many variables as the kickoff, the Penn State coaching staff can rely on a player like Stout to drive the ball deep and eliminate any possibility of something going wrong. A missed tackle, a player not staying in their assigned lane, a touchdown (which Penn State did allow in last year’s season opener)—there’s no need to worry about any of that with a leg like Stout’s.

With punter Blake Gillikin beginning his fourth year as a starter on a positive note, both the kickoff and punt teams seem to be in far better shape than they were at season’s end. Coach Franklin often mentions the “field position battle” and Gillikin and Stout will undoubtedly be crucial in winning it for the Nittany Lions each game.

Redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler has already played a significant role in this regard. Assigning him to be the team’s main kickoff and punt returner has paid off in these first two games, considering both Idaho and Buffalo sacrificed substantial yardage just to avoid kicking it to the star playmaker.

Better field position opens up many doors for this Penn State team. For starters, it takes some pressure off of Jake Pinegar, who is still developing as a steady placekicker. It prevents a young starting quarterback from having to constantly march down a long field. It allows a formidable defense to be even more effective than they already are. Bottom line, it allows Penn State to play solid, complementary football, which they were unable to do for the majority of last season.

Joe Lorig, during his first spring practice with the team, said the “fastest way you can improve as a football team is in your special teams unit.” While the sample size may be too small to determine just how much Penn State has grown since last season, one thing is certain: they’ve found consistency in the area they needed it most. A unit that was once a liability has the potential to become an overwhelming strength for this ascending program.

 

Connor Griffin is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email him at cfg6@psu.edu.