UNIVERSITY PARK — The biggest personnel stunner in Bill O’Brien’s coaching debut occurred on the game’s first play.
Gerald Hodges, one of Penn State’s key defensive cogs, stood with his back to the north end zone to
receive Saturday’s opening kickoff against Ohio University.
Seeing Hodges returning kicks represented a strange sight. Hodges, after all, registered 106 tackles last season, making him one of the team’s most indispensable players.
“Gerald is an athlete and everybody sees that,” offensive tackle Donovan Smith said. “It was kind of a surprise, but not really. We knew he was going to be there. It was definitely fun seeing him back there returning kicks.”
The move produced lukewarm results. He returned the opening kickoff for 12 yards and muffed a punt in the second quarter. Ohio flipped the turnover into Matt Weller’s 22-yard field goal.
Hodges didn’t return kicks or punts in the second half. In fact, he didn’t play linebacker the entire half, missing multiple series with a lower-body injury. Sophomore Mike Hull took Hodges’ place in the Nittany Lions’ 4-3 alignments.
Hodges registered 11 tackles despite the injury. Penn State didn’t make Hodges, one of Saturday’s four captains, available to reporters after the game, so it’s unknown if he will continue returning kicks and punts.
Penn State used four returners. Sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos, sophomore tailback Bill Belton and sophomore wide receiver Alex Kenney served as the other returners.
Weller kicked off five times. The Nittany Lions returned four, with Belton taking two for a game-high 45 yards.
O’Brien, who closely guarded the identity of his return teams throughout the preseason, defended the decision to use Hodges on special teams.
“He had a lot of time back there,” O’Brien said. “He’s an excellent player. We gave him a lot of work back there. We had four or five guys that did a lot of work back there.”
Farrell receives start
A strong training camp helped senior Mike Farell receive his second career starter.
Farrell joined Smith, Miles Dieffenbach, Matt Stankiewitch, John Urschel and Donovan Smith on the starting offensive line. He started at right tackle and played the entire game because Smith missed part of the second half because of leg cramps.
Farrell and Adam Gress were locked in a battle at right tackle througout the preseason.
“There was never a moment when the coaches sat me down,”
said Farrell, who made his first start against Indiana as a sophomore. “I was going with the first team throughout the week and camp. I was taking less and less of second-team reps and more and more of the first-team reps. Rather than jump the gun and assume the spot, I just kept working and focusing on the game.”
Wartman makes big play
True freshman Nyeem Wartman didn’t need long to make an impact.
Wartman gave the Nittany Lions a boost by bursting through the middle of Ohio’s line and blocking a punt in the second quarter. Jesse Della Valle caught the ball, allowing Penn State to start a drive at the Bobcat 18. Three plays later, Matt McGloin fired a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Lehman.
Wartman, who attended District 2 Valley View High School, also entered the game at middle linebacker in the second quarter.
Cornerback Da’Quan Davis and wide receiver Trevor Williams were the only other true freshmen to play Saturday. Davis and Williams both attended Calvert Hall College. (Md.) High School.
Kenney makes receiving debut
Kenney, a State College High School graduate, caught two passes for 21 yards in his first college game at wide receiver. His first career reception went for 11 yards, allowing the Nittany Lions to prolong their opening drive. Kenney, a defensive back last season, had a 10-yard reception in the second half.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter@cdtguy.