Nittany Lines

Penn State special teams players to watch in 2016

Let’s cut right to it.

A sanctionless Penn State, for the first time since Sam Ficken in 2011, has a kicker entering the program on scholarship for the 2016 season in Georgia product Alex Barbir.

Blake Gillikin, a punter who also hails from Georgia, rounds out a duo that the Nittany Lions hope will help ease their special teams woes often suffered last season.

In 2015, the team ranked No. 106 in the nation in net punting with 77 punts for an average of 34.34 yards per punt and just four touchbacks. Kickoffs averaged just 39 net yards and six were kicked out of bounds (Joey Julius had five out-of-bounds kickoffs while Tyler Davis had one). The Nittany Lions’ special teams defensive unit that started the year in promising fashion ultimately finished the season 120th in the nation in kickoff return defense with 940 yards allowed on 36 attempts (26.11 yards per attempt) and a touchdown.

Penn State’s own kickoff returns averaged 20.89 yards per attempt with no touchdowns and finished the season ranked No. 60 in the nation.

Head coach James Franklin knows the unit has to vastly improve — he’s said as much time and again. Barbir and Gillikin obviously can’t fix it all, especially as freshmen, but their combined accuracy and efforts could give their unit a much better chance to be successful.

Here’s who to watch this season:

The Obvious

Barbir committed to the Nittany Lions after the latter’s well-publicized wooing of now-Michigan signee Quinn Nordin — remembered as the kicker who committed to Penn State with a self-produced music video in which he was on a private jet, and then de-committed after a Michigan visit and following Jim Harbaugh sleepover.

But Barbir instantly became a fan-favorite after he signed with the team for his toungue-in-cheek rebuttal of Nordin’s recruitment and plane announcement, and his self-awareness on social media when it comes to current events both within football and outside of it.

More good news for fans: He can boot.

The Less-Obvious

Punters are people too!

Field position has become a crucial tool in many teams across the country, with the Big Ten being no exception. Returners like Rutgers’ Janarion Grant and Michigan’s Jabril Peppers have only increased that need.

But the best punters turn the battle for field position into an art form — just watch Utah’s two-time Ray Guy award winner Tom Hackett (currently with the New York Jets), and you’ll understand — and three punters were even selected in the sixth or seventh rounds of this year’s NFL draft.

Add in a team that’s rebuilding a defense that can use all the field position and spell time it can get, and Gillikin’s importance to the team is large, albeit unheralded.

The two scholarship players are especially important when modern practices of college football are considered. More often than not, specialists are left to their own devices at team workouts. Many who have been pedigreed to the position have private coaches to help them with technique and game-time situations, as well as with understanding how to create their own structure in practices. That kind of, for lack of a better word, specialization, is important for a unit that often looked unsure of itself last season.

The Obviously Important

Charles Huff is not a player, of course, but as an assistant coach who is in charge of special teams (as well as running backs), he needs a productive year from his unit. Issues in coverage and with tackling were apparent as the season continued, and these will continue to be crucial as the team will have to contain upcoming Big Ten opponents that combined for 10 kickoff and punt return touchdowns in 2015 (Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan).

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue