Zach Ladonis smiled as he looked up at the bleachers in the student section of Beaver Stadium, pointing to a particular group of seats.
He was in Section SF, watching the Nittany Lion football team lose to Central Florida, then was back up there the following weekend for a win over Kent State.
Where was he the next week?
On the field wearing blue and white during a 44-24 loss to Indiana at Memorial Stadium.
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“It’s definitely a life-changing experience,” Ladonis said. “It was cool to see both sides, to see how you can be a fan for years, then see how — getting able to play was definitely a lot of fun.”
The sophomore wasn’t even on the roster when the season began, starting the year watching as a fan. He tried out and got the call after the season’s fourth game, the win over Kent State. It was that kind of season for the Nittany Lions on special teams in 2013.
Each game it seemed like someone new was being called upon to help the team. Penn State had three different men as a holder on extra points and field goals, and three more long-snappers, including Ladonis.
He was the long-snapper against the Hoosiers, with the biggest thrill a third-quarter tackle on a punt.
“It was great, but I really didn’t know anybody on the team at the time,” Ladonis said. “Everybody was like, ‘Hey — we don’t know you yet! Good job.’”
After spending the rest of the season at the position, and getting in an entire offseason of work with the team, everyone knows his name, and he is feeling a lot more confident.
“You ask him who is the best snapper in the country,” special teams coordinator Charles Huff said, “he says to me, ‘Why are you asking me coach?’
“But those are the kind of guys we want and that’s the kind of attitude you’ve got to have,” Huff said. “Because if you don’t believe in yourself there’s not very many people that will. Whether it’s a walk-on or starter we really don’t look at it as, hey, you’re a walk-on. A lot of times, because of the nature of special teams, that’s an area where a walk-on will have an opportunity to get more reps sooner.”
Ladonis finally gave the team stability at the position after the Nittany Lions used Ty Howle, who bounced a snap on an early field goal attempt against the Hoosiers, and Glenn Carson.
The person catching those snaps on place kicks also saw a revolving door.
Safety Ryan Keiser was the starter, but a broken hand suffered during the Kent State game knocked him out of that job for most of the season. Punter Alex Butterworth and walk-on running back Adam Geiger handled the duties during Keiser’s absence.
The changes affected kicker Sam Ficken, who kept having to adjust to new hands setting the ball for him. He had a run of 15 straight made field goals from late 2012 through early 2013, but he finished making 15 of 23 attempts.
“I would be highly skeptical if you told me there were more than one or two kickers that went through three holders in one season,” Ficken said. “It presented a challenge.”
It’s a small thing, but it’s important for kickers to have the consistency, to be confident the ball will be in exactly the right spot when they approach the ball during the chaos of the kicking plays.
“Every kicker has their own preference,” Ficken said. “For something that is supposed to be so consistent to kind of change on you, it was a little challenging. People definitely undervalue the role of the holder. Keiser’s exceptional at that. If people drafted that, I think he’d be the first one off the board.”
While that trio seems fairly solid in their positions, the Nittany Lions are also seeking a new punter with the graduation of Butterworth.
The front-runner heading into the start of training camp is Chris Gulla. The other two punters on the roster are both true freshmen: Robby Liebel, from Florida, and Daniel Pasquariello of Australia.
“Coach (James) Franklin’s philosophy everywhere is there’s competition,” Gulla said. “There’s definitely good competition in camp.”
The redshirt freshman had a solid reputation as a place kicker out of high school in Toms River, N.J., but he has accepted his chance to get on the field with the position change.
“Once Butters graduated, I focused on punting and kind of put placekicking to the side,” Gulla said. “I really have adjusted as well as I want to. I feel like I can do more than placekicking now.”
With no clear favorite, the Nittany Lion coaches hope it makes all of the competitors hungrier.
“You run into an issue when you don’t really have anybody to push the guy who’s in front,” Huff said. “You worry about, does he get kind of lackadaisical, does he fall into a groove? Every day you’ve got to come out because you’ve got two or three guys behind you. You’ve got to compete, and if you win the job you win it fair and square.”
And like Ladonis learned, you never know where you might be sitting when your name gets called.