Imagine a football tumbling or spinning through the air as you position yourself under it while 11 young men, trained daily to corral you, rush down the field in your direction.
After a season in which special teams were a frequent concern, Penn State is certainly looking to solidify its return game heading into its season opener Aug. 31 against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
“We’re searching for that right guy,” said running backs coach Charles London, who will oversee special teams with linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden after John Butler’s move to defensive coordinator.
“So we’re looking for guys back there that can focus, catch the ball and have what we call blind faith on returns that those guys in front of them are going to do what they have to do so they can hit the lanes with full speed.”
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Former State College Little Lion-turned-Nittany Lion Alex Kenney hopes to be one of those guys.
A speedster at 6-foot, 190-pounds, the junior will battle Bill Belton, Trevor Williams, Geno Lewis, Akeel Lynch and Richy Anderson for the top return spot, although PSU must also improve its punt and kick games.
The Nittany Lions finished in the middle of the Big Ten in kick returns last season and ninth in punt returns. Head coach Bill O’Brien’s team also lacked personnel consistency, using five different returners for punts and eight more for kickoffs.
“Our return game needs to improve,” O’Brien said last Thursday during media day. “And I think we’ve put some players in the return game that have definitely added improvement to those units.”
Belton, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior running back, led the team last year with nine kick returns for 140 yards. Lewis and Lynch redshirted their freshman seasons, while Anderson is a true freshman.
Jesse Della Valle led the team with 15 punt returns for 114 yards last year.
As for snagging that tumbling, spinning ball with the defense in hot pursuit, Kenney just tries to clear his mind and let instincts take over.
“I don’t like to think too much into things,” he said. “I just live in the moment. Just try to catch the ball and make a play.”
London said Kenney as a guy with “great speed,” who is always a “threat to take it the distance.”
And as O’Brien’s pass-oriented offense tries to replace Matt McGloin with young quarterbacks, extra yards in the return game could be important.
“It’s huge,” London said. “It’s a third of the game, so offensively we’re looking on kickoff returns to get great field position. Then on kickoff team we’re looking to pin them deep and make them drive a long field. We call it complementary football.”
Synergistically, that would also mean more consistency in the kicking and punting games.
In conference play, Penn State finished 10th in kickoff coverage and eighth in both punt coverage and field goals.
Kicker Sam Ficken struggled early in the season, including a 1-for-5 performance in a 17-16 loss to Virginia. The junior rebounded, however, and hit 12 of 13 to end the season, including the eventual game-winner (3-for-3) in a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin in the season finale.
“A lot with him (was) that he really never kicked before in a game and now he’s out there and he has some confidence and we believe in him,” London said. “He’s our kicker.”
Increased confidence, according to London, is also the prescription for senior punter Alex Butterworth. The Nittany Lions finished 11th in conference punting last season, ahead of only Minnesota, which went 2-6 in the Big Ten and was 6-7 overall.
As for Kenney, who always dreamed of playing Penn State football, he just wants a chance to help where he can.
“It (would mean) a lot to me,” he said of getting the nod at kick return. “So if I get the opportunity I’m going to make the most of it.”
London said there was no leader in the returners’ clubhouse, but he expects someone to emerge as the season opener nears.
“We’re going to kind of have a tryout back there,” he said. “And may the best man win.”