With a blocked field goal generating the upset over Ohio State and Saquon Barkley entering Heisman talks, few people have smiled more this season than Penn State special teams coordinator and running backs coach Charles Huff.
On a Thursday conference call, Huff talked Barkley's patience, Penn State's depth at running back, and the important oft-overlooked special teams play in the win over the Buckeyes.
Question: How do you assess the special teams over the first eight games of the season?
Answer: We've gotten better. Obviously we're not anywhere where we want to be or expect to be, but it's been a part of the process...Year one when we were coming in, we were young having depth issues, and we weren't able to play everybody we wanted to on special teams because of some of those depth issues and limitations. As you continue to recruit and develop younger players, you're able to get some of those developed players on special teams. You get better players, more depth, more options, more competition in practice, and you see improvement.
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Q: When Blake Gillikin fell on that ball in the end zone for a safety in the Ohio State game, given the way this season has turned since then, what do you think that one particular play could mean over the course of the season?
A: That one play was huge. Over the course of the game, there was a lot that went on...But being able to have an athlete — obviously that's not what you really want; you don't want him running behind to pick up a ball. But to have an athlete that understands, not only do I need to need to get back to get this ball, but I need to fall on it. I'd prefer him kick it out of the end zone. But to have an athlete like that, they don't panic in those situations. You take a bad play and keep it from becoming a catastrophe. When we're recruiting, we're looking for guys who have played the game of football and understand. Not saying that those young men who just kick aren't valuable, but it helps when you have an awareness and a smarter player that understands the game and the importance of certain things.
Q: When you're as young and as deep as you guys are at running back, does that make it easier or more difficult to recruit for the position? Because you're obviously being very successful, but you also have a lot of guys there.
A: The recruits that we're recruiting, at the level we should be recruiting here at Penn State, all of their options are going to be deep, wherever they go. Alabama's deep. Clemson's deep. The schools that we're competing against, everywhere is deep. We tell them it comes down to if you're able to compete. And then you have to take all the other factors in: the academics, the relationship with the coaches, the style of offense, distance from home, family support system, all of those things. We have Saquon, Miles, Mark and all these guys, but that's everywhere you go. I tell recruits, no one really knew who Trent Richardson was when Mark Ingram was there (at Alabama). But you can still be successful if you go in with the right attitude. I tell them that the best player is going to play. I'm hoping we find a guy or there's a guy on our team right now that forces us to start him over Saquon Barkley. That's what we want. Because that means that you're that much better, and that's going to make Saquon better, and that's going to make the team better. That's the message we give recruits.
Q: What kind of progress have you seen from them (Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson, Mark Allen), and how valuable of a weapon are they that you can pretty much put them in at any point of the game?
A: I preach this to the entire room: you have to be ready. You've got to be ready mentally, physically, emotionally at any point. A lot of people think that in the Temple game, Saquon got "hurt". Well he did bump knees with a guy, and he could've went back in two plays later, but it was an opportunity for those other guys to step up, and they did. We didn't feel the need to run him right back in there. Obviously he came back in later in the game, but it's moments like that where you see them progress. It was good for their focus, too, because it happened the first or second play of the game. Every time I tell you guys you have to be ready, continue to learn the playbook, you can't make mistakes at practice so that the coaching staff and players have confidence in you, that was kind of the validating moment.
Q: We've seen Saquon do some pretty crazy things this year — 80-yard runs, flipping through the air, hurdling people backwards — but what is the most impressive thing to you with what we've seen from him this year?
A: I don't try to belittle his extraordinary runs by any means, and he's done some amazing things. To me, some of the bigger things that you really don't see is early in the season he was pressing to try and make the big run and was doing a lot of extra cuts and trying to bounce things too much. We sat down after game two, looked through and talked through some things, and he started to make that change. He was starting to take what the defense was giving him. He was pressing the line of scrimmage, being physical, taking the two yards, running through the linebacker for four yards. And I told him, once you do those things once or twice, the 80-yard runs, 60-yard, 20-yard runs, the 200-yard games will come. And he really received that. Sometimes if you have a great freshman year, come back and you don't have success early, get frustrated...Now you kind of see where he's had some of those Saquon Barkley-type runs. The ability for him to be patient and not get frustrated...he stuck to it, kept letting us coach him, kept watching film, and to me his patience and growth through those first couple of games is the biggest and best thing I've seen.