It’s the most secretive part of the Penn State football team through 12 days of preseason practice.
Here’s what we know about the Nittany Lions’ special teams after a few conversations with coach Bill O’Brien, two short glimpses of practice and last week’s media day: sophomore Sam Ficken is the kicker and junior Emery Etter is the long snapper.
The rest of the kicking and punting game remains muddled.
Neither junior Alex Butterworth nor redshirt freshman Matt Marcincin are separating themselves in the punting competition. Starting quarterback Matt McGloin and former kicker Evan Lewis are holding.
And don’t bother asking Bill O’Brien who’s returning kicks or punts. He either doesn’t know yet or doesn’t want Ohio University to obtain a special teams edge before the Sept. 1 opener.
Penn State lost leading punt returner Justin Brown and speedy kickoff returner Devon Smith this summer. Some of Penn State’s return options — Bill Belton, Alex Kenney and Adrian Amos — hold prominent offensive or defensive roles.
“We’ve been looking at a lot of guys as returners,” O’Brien said. “You’ll see Sept. 1 who returns kicks.”
One thing is certain: the coaching staff hasn’t ignored special teams during preseason camp.
“They are definitely stressing a lot of importance on special teams,” Butterworth said. “I think they understand how important they are, which makes us feel good about what we are doing.”
O’Brien said Penn State spends three periods of each practice enhancing its special teams. The Nittany Lions also hold regular special teams meetings.
“I expect us to go out there and be a solid special teams football team,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien hired a savant to help Penn State’s units. Secondary coach John Butler offers the staff a special teams guru. He served as South Carolina’s special teams coordinator last season and worked with Minnesota’s special teams from 2007-10.
In fact, Butler has spent the past decade of his coaching career, which also has included stops at Harvard and Texas State, handling various special teams assignments.
Butler’s duties molding a secondary replacing four starters prevents him from performing full-time special teams work. But Butler has an omnipresent influence on the kicking and punting units.
“He definitely knows what he’s doing,” Ficken said. “He’s experienced. He has us doing what’s right.”
Butler said he wasn’t hired specifically for special teams, but O’Brien consulted with him on plans for the units. Butler works with the kickers and punters. Running backs coach Charles London (kickoffs), linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden (punt returns), tight ends coach John Strollo (kick returns), defensive line coach Larry Johnson (field goal blocks) and offensive line Mac McWhorter (field goal protection) are also involved in the planning.
“There’s been a bunch of work on it,” Butler said. “If you do the math, we are spending 34 minutes a day to be exact in the meetings, walk throughs and practices on special teams. It has been good.”
The staff is trying to field solid units despite the loss of special teams ace Anthony Fera. The junior transferred to Texas. He developed into a reliable kicker and punter after returning from an early-season suspension in 2011.
Ficken, Butterworth and Marcincin bring limited experienced into this season. Ficken went 1-for-2 on the field goal attempts, hitting a 43-yarder against Eastern Michigan, Butterworth averaged 38.5 yards on eight punts and Marcincin redshirted last season.
Fera, by contrast, converted 14-of-17 field goals and averaged 42 yards on 64 punts. His departure has placed some players in fortuitous positions.
“I have been fortunate to have opportunities over the last year two years and I’m taking this the same way,” Butterworth said. “It’s another opportunity to come out and show everybody what I can do.”
Notes:Wide receiver Jared Fagnano will transfer from Akron to Penn State. Fagnano, a Williamsport High School graduate, is the younger brother of senior safety Jake Fagnano. Jared, who redshirted for the Zips in 2011, must sit out this season per NCAA rules. He caught 57 passes for 988 yards and 10 touchdowns his senior season at Williamsport.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy