With just three days until Penn State’s Blue/White Weekend, we have, last but not least, the breakdown of the Nittany Lions’s special teams unit. After the departure of Sam Ficken two years ago, instability plagued the unit. Joey Julius got off to a hot start, before eventually fizzling out. The team did not seem to have a reliable kick returner as well. Things began to look up last year. With a lot of returning members to the unit, let’s take a look at what to expect for this upcoming season.
We can expect to see coach James Franklin run with the same two kicker system we saw for much of last year. Tyler Davis’s increasingly improved accuracy makes him a lock to be kicking field goals and extra points this season. On the other hand, Joey Julius’s massive power and hit-stick abilities will mean we will likely see him lining up for a majority of the kickoffs this season. This is what fans saw for most of last season, up until the Rose Bowl where Joey Julius was hurt and was limited by the coaching staff.
My what a long way we have come. It wasn’t that long ago (about the last three games of the 2015 season) that Coach Franklin took to the media and made statements about being open to the idea of open tryouts to find a new punter. Daniel Pasquarillo couldn’t seem to keep his punts in bounds or send them more than 30 yards. Last season, however, Pasquarillo moved into a less involved role and made room for newcomer Blake Gillikin. Gillikin went on to break two school records.
First, with an average punt of 42.8 yards, Gillikin set the school record for average punt yards by a freshman in a single season. Second, in the Rose Bowl, Gillikin’s five punts went an average of 50.8 yards, the new record for average in a game by a freshman. We should expect to see Gillikin in the same role this upcoming season. Hopefully he has spent some time working on his accuracy and will come back ready to pin opposing offenses deep in their own zone.
Finally, we get to the kick/punt returners. We saw a bit of a revolving door last season. Kicks and punts were returned by the likes of Greg Garrity, John Reid and Miles Sanders. With Garrity gone to graduation, and Reid shut down for the season due to his knee injury, it looks like Sanders will be the go-to guy. Sanders got off to a slow start on returns last season, when he was a true freshman. He had made visible improvements by the end of the season and hopefully has continued to work on his weaknesses in spring practice.
It will be interesting to see who else the coaching staff is going to send out to return kicks during the Blue and White Game this weekend. The best bets would probably be one of the other running backs, whether it be Andre Robinson, Mark Allen or both.