It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Penn State coaches aren’t quite sold on who their starting punter and returners will be just five days before the season opener against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland.
The truth is, special teams coach Charles Huff has been eying a handful of options at those spots. More importantly, he likes what he’s seen from his possession-change specialists — positions that have not been effective for the Nittany Lions in recent years.
Freshmen Robby Liebel and Daniel Pasquariello continue to battle redshirt freshman Chris Gulla for starting punting duties, where Penn State ranked 11th in the conference the last two seasons. Meanwhile, a host of players, including sophomore running back Akeel Lynch and freshmen receiver DeAndre Thompkins, have worked as returners, where playmakers are sorely needed.
Consider the facts: A Penn State returner hasn’t returned a kickoff for a score in 147 quarters, with the last kick return touchdown coming from Chaz Powell against Indiana State in 2011. Derrick Williams returned the last punt for a touchdown. That was 278 quarters ago against Wisconsin in 2008. The Nittany Lions have blocked punts and returned them for scores since, but have lacked big-play ability on their return teams for quite some time.
Huff is determined to change that. It starts with the mindset, he said.
“We are looking for a guy who can go the distance, and we’re also looking for a guy who can field the ball. And that’s where we’re kind of at,” Huff said. “There’s a group of guys that can do both. There were plenty of guys that can field it and make a fair catch. That’s not what we’re looking for on our special teams. We want to be explosive. We want to attack. And the way to do that is to have those guys.”
Over the last two seasons, Penn State rarely attacked with its punt return team.
In 2012, Jesse Della Valle led Penn State punt returners with just about eight yards per return. He only turned upfield on 15 tries and the Nittany Lions returned just 30 of a possible 63 punts.
In 2013, Penn State used Della Valle primarily on punt return. Della Valle averaged just over eight yards per return, while Von Walker averaged about five on four returns. But combined, Della Valle, Walker and Gregg Garrity returned just 23 of a possible 70 punts that came Penn State’s way.
“My philosophy is totally different,” Huff said. “No disrespect to anybody that’s been here. We want to score. Either we’re going to go block the kick, or we’re trying to return it for a touchdown. Eight or nine yards is not our goal. I know a lot of people were satisfied with that. But we want touchdowns. We want blocked kicks. The guy that goes back there, that’s got to be his mindset.”
The national leader in punt return average last season, North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer, returned 25 punts. He averaged just over 20 yards per return and scored five touchdowns.
Similarly, Huff wants his returners to maximize their chances. He wants them to be able to catch any type of kick in every possible condition.
It’s why he’s put them through drill after drill where tennis balls and medicine balls are flying at them from all directions while a football is coming out of the sky along a steep or direct trajectory above them. They’ve seen end-over-end kicks and perfect spirals, too. Huff has also had each of his potential punt returners field punts while holding two footballs — one in each hand — to improve their catching technique and prevent dreaded muffs.
“If you field more balls, you get more returns; if you get more returns, you get more yards; you get more yards, you get more touchdowns. There’s a process to that,” Huff said. “That’s the mentality we’re taking with who we select to go back there. Can this guy score a touchdown? If you can’t score a touchdown, then you’ve got to get another guy.”
Although Gulla was on the roster when James Franklin took over and Huff was brought on board, both men thought they’d need at least one more kicking specialist to compete for playing time. Huff got two, as Liebel walked-on and Pasquariello did the same. The latter, who is from Melbourne, Australia, enrolled at Penn State for the first summer semester and has been gradually acclimating to life in the U.S.
So far, he’s given Huff reason to pause in naming a starting punter. With Liebel in the mix, all three punters drew praise for booting nearly identical, booming punts that hung in the air for around four seconds last week in practice.
“Each one of those three guys have something that is unique to each one of them and a little bit different,” Huff said. “But right now it’s a dead heat. Which is good, because a dead heat means you have a lot of competition. There’s not one guy that’s head and shoulders above the rest today, and we’ve explained to those guys it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. So the guy who ‘wins the job’ does not mean that hey, the competition is over for the year.”
The same can be said for the kickoff coverage unit that will flank kicker Sam Ficken, and the return squads that will pave the way for the return men. Huff wants to use multiple players in every role in order to get younger players experience and keep some of Penn State’s more experienced players fresh.
The types of players Huff wants on coverage teams and in the kickoff return team’s blocking lines must be able to play fast and adjust on the fly and follow direction.
With special teams plays being a one-shot deal, one mistake can often be the difference in a touchdown given up or a successful stop. A player who gets out of his lane on kickoff coverage is easy to knock out of the play by a well-positioned, disciplined blocker. One open lane at the precise moment is all a savvy, well-visioned return man needs to score.
Huff is piecing together groups of players who realize these caveats and can account for them, and can adjust appropriately in the span of time it takes for a special teams play to finish.
“Really, we would love to have rotating guys so that if (injuries) happen that we’re not locked into these 11 guys play punt, these 11 guys play kickoff, these 11 guys play kickoff return. And then something happens and you’re missing a huge gap because he’s the only guy that had been repping it,” Huff said. “We’ve done a really good job this summer and this camp of repping multiple guys at multiple positions.”