UNIVERSITY PARK — Losing one player created two major openings on Penn State’s special teams.
Junior Anthony Fera left Penn State for Texas last week. His departure opened two starting jobs because Fera handled both the kicking and punting duties.
Sophomore Sam Ficken and junior Alex Butterworth, the only two Nittany Lions from Indiana, are candidates to replace the departed multi-tasker.
“It’s obviously a big opportunity with Fera leaving,” Ficken said. “We have to step up. I’m excited to get going. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Ficken, a 2010 Associated Press all-state selection at Valparaiso (Ind.) High School, is the favorite to earn the kicking duties. Coach Bill O’Brien said Ficken has “kicked the ball consistently and done a good job” through the early stages of preseason camp.
Still, Ficken isn’t using ink to fill out a projected lineup card.
“You can’t take anything for granted at this level,” he said. “But if you do your job at this point, you are going to get the job.”
The punting situation is murkier. Butterworth, a 2009 Associated Press all-state selection at Heritage Christian (Ind.) High School, is competing with freshman Matt Marcincin. Butterworth averaged 38.5 yards on eight punts last season.
“It has been a rollercoaster with Anthony leaving,” Butterworth said. “He’s one of my really good friends.”
“It was tough. You have to step up and make plays now.”
Secondary coach John Butler, who works with the special teams, said Ficken is also receiving looks at punter.
“That’s going to be one of our biggest challenges, finding out who the punter is going to be,” Butler said. “We’ll figure it out. Right now it’s kind of a fluid situation.”
With a new coaching staff comes new rules — or the relaxing of old rules. After the clean-cut, disciplined look of the Nittany Lions under former coach Joe Paterno, this year’s team has been allowed to let the hair on the head and face grow out a little.
There are now quite a few notable manes on the team, including on receiver Alex Kenney, who kept his hair short throughout his time at State College High School as well as during his first two seasons with the Nittany Lions. Now his hair has grown out in an afro, dyed a light brown.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to grow my hair out,” Kenney said. “We got the opportunity to, so I decided to. Just exercising our new freedoms.”
Several others also have let the locks go long, including defensive end Pete Massaro, fullback Mike Zordich and linebackers Mike Mauti and Ben Kline.
“Long hair’s getting pretty popular on this team right now,” said Massaro, who was also sporting several days worth of stubble on the cheeks. “... I’ve always wanted to grow out my hair so I figured I’d take this chance. I like it so far. I don’t know about the girlfriend, but I’m liking it so far.”
However, the top head of hair likely belongs to senior backup quarterback Shane McGregor, whose luxurious long blonde tresses would likely make any hairdresser proud.
A popular open-ended question many players fielded during Thursday’s media day: “Explain your decision to stay at Penn State...”
Here’s a sampling of answers:
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill: “The only way I would have ever left is if there wasn’t a player on the team. Then, I had to go.”
Sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson: “I’m all in. I would have been all-in regardless. Coach O’Brien’s a great coach, we have a great staff and a great training staff, so I think this is a great place to be.”
Sophomore guard Miles Dieffenbach: “I made a commitment to stay with this team and be a part of this team. I’m not going anywhere.”
Getting him reps
Don’t look for backup quarterback Paul Jones to spend the entire season on the bench.
O’Brien said that he plans to use Jones this season. Jones, a third-year sophomore, missed the past two seasons for academic reasons. Senior Matt McGloin then beat out Jones for the starting job in spring drills.
“Paul will play,” O’Brien said. “Paul is good player, an instinctive guy, a play-maker. So he’ll definitely see time this year.”
O’Brien said redshirt freshman Jordan Kerner is not participating in camp for medical reasons. Kerner has a “various number of injuries,” according to O’Brien. ... NCAA rules allow sophomore tight end Dakota Royer, who left the team Wednesday, to remain on scholarship as he finishes school. Royer plans on graduating next May. ... Marshall announced Thursday that it added former Penn State cornerback Derrick Thomas to its roster. Thomas left the Nittany Lions earlier this summer for personal reasons. ... Bellefonte graduate Tyler Lucas has moved from quarterback to wide receiver. Lucas is a redshirt freshman.