Saturday, August 30, 2014

Penn State 26, UCF 24. The good, the not so good, and other notes.

Today the Nittany Lions started off the James Franklin Era with a thrilling 26-24 victory over UCF. Penn State was the better team from start to finish today. Penn State piled up 511 yards of total offense, as opposed to just 246 for Central Florida. This is a game Penn State should have won easily, and it certainly should not have taken a Sam Ficken field goal as the clock expired to win.

The Nittany Lions showed me a lot today though. Central Florida is a very good team. They went 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl a year ago, and returned much of that team. Even with the loss of Blake Bortles, they showed they still have a fine young QB in Justin Colman who nearly rallied the Golden Knights to victory in the second half. This was a game I felt was a real coin flip on who would win, not only did the Nittany Lions win they dominated the game. The scoreboard does not reflect this, but anyone who watched the game will tell you that. They stifled the UCF offense all game outside of a few drives, and Christian Hackenberg threw the ball all over a very good UCF secondary. Maybe most impressive was the resiliency they showed. However, there are still a lot of aspects of their game that the Nittany Lions need to clean up.

The Good:

Christian Hackenberg

Yes, Hack threw two interceptions today and tried to force a few ill-advised throws. But he put his team on his back when they needed him to. Especially on the final drive when he marched the team down the field in just one minute and thirteen seconds to get them into field goal range for Sam Ficken. Speaking of that final drive, this is what Coach Franklin had to say about it after the game: "There was only a minute or so left in the game, and I looked across the sideline and there wasn't doubt in anybody's eye. Everybody believed. They believed in Hack. They believed in Ficken," Franklin said. Today Hack threw for a school record 454 yards, while completing 32 of 47 passes. He also threw a 79 yard touchdown pass to Geno Lewis. Hack's decision making needs to be better and he can't keep trying to force throws into traffic like he did at times today. Outside of that though, Hack was marvelous. Especially considering he did it behind an offensive line that did not give him a lot of time to throw. The Nittany Lions have one of the best quarterbacks in the country, we just need to sit back and enjoy watching him play every week.

Geno Lewis/DaeSean Hamilton
One thing Penn State must do this season is find WRs to replace Allen Robinson's production, well Lewis and Hamilton stepped up big time today. Lewis caught 8 passes for 173 yards and a TD, while Hamilton, in his first career collegiate game, caught 11 passes for 165 yards. It was obvious early that Hamilton was Hack's go to target. Hamilton would have played significant reps last year if not for a wrist injury that cost him his season, and I have said multiple times that he is a breakout player to watch this year and today he showed why. As for Lewis, this may have been expected from some if not many PSU fans. Lewis was the lone returning WR with experience, and today he did a good job of stepping up when his team needed him most. Don't forget the great catch he had in the 4th quarter on a ball that was tipped up in the air that set up one of the Nittany Lions' field goals. That was a heck of a catch.

The Defensive Line
Penn State's defensive line is deep and talented, and it showed today. UCF was held to just 24 rushing yards, and a big reason why is the way Penn State's defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Deion Barnes routinely pressured UCF's quarterbacks, Anthony Zettel had 5 TFL, Austin Johnson had a strong game, and Brad Bars made some plays as well. The defensive line also accounted for 4 sacks today. If their strong play continues as the season goes on, the Nittany Lions will have a much better defense than last year.

Jordan LucasThe Nittany Lions need Lucas to be a shutdown corner this year, and he looked like it today. He broke up two passes, flew all over the field, and I do not remember a single pass being completed on him while in man coverage. Lucas looked like the preseason All-Big Ten performer he was dubbed before the season today. If Lucas' stellar play continues, the Nittany Lions will have a solid secondary this year.

The Entire Defense
This defense today looked like a complete 180 from last season. The defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, the secondary did not look out place and were not burnt for one massive gain after another, the linebackers flew around and made plays. They looked like a Penn State defense. They held UCF to just 246 yards of total offense, and just 35 yards in the first half. They also came up big time and time again. Three times UCF had drives start in Penn State territory, and the defense held them to just 3 points on those drives. Also, when Hack threw his second interception the very next play UCF fumbled and Anthony Zettel recovered. That is a defense answering the bell and bailing their offense out. Yes, UCF's offense looked totally incompetent in the first half with Pete DiNovo under center but what they did was still impressive. Plus, once Justin Colman entered the game in the second half UCF's offense really started to click for a few drives. However, the defense was able to adjust and still get stops when they needed to. The only real negatives I can think of on defense were Da'Quan Davis looking horrible in coverage, and a few missed tackles. Otherwise, the defense was outstanding.

Sam Ficken

Last, but certainly not least, Kickin' Sam Ficken. Today's hero. How could you not feel great for Ficken today? He was 2/2 on extra points, and 4/4 on field goals. Including nailing a 36 yarder as the clock expired to seal the victory. Sam Ficken has been through a lot during his PSU career, but he has worked his tail off and sure as hell deserved to have a day like this.

The Not So Good


Penn State committed 9 penalties worth 90 yards today, and those penalties are a big reason why they could not put UCF away as they should have. Three of these penalties were 15 yard penalties, two of which extended UCF drives. There was also a costly holding on Da'Quan Davis, who is lucky to not be on the not so good list between that and his play in the secondary, that negated a kick off return into UCF territory and an offensive pass interference call on Chris Godwin that took away a first and goal. Penn State must clean up the penalties moving forward, they were lucky that the penalties were not more costly than they were today.


Penn State turned the ball over 3 times today. A pair of Hack interceptions on passes he tried to force into coverage, they also lost a fumble today. Even though these turnovers only led to 7 UCF points, they still killed drives with two of the turnovers coming in UCF territory. The turnovers may have been a 14 or 20 point swing in this game, and helped contribute to PSU not putting them away. They led to 7 points for UCF, and cost PSU at least 6. 32-17 looks a lot nicer than 26-24, and it wouldn't have been so stressful over the final 1:13 seconds either.

Offensive Line/Rushing Game

The offensive line is young and inexperienced, and it showed today. Hack was constantly running for his life on pass plays, and the Nittany Lions never were able to get the rushing attack going.  In total the Nittany Lions ran for just 57 yards today, and averaged just 2 yards per carry. Shoot, at halftime their leading rusher was Hack! This HAS to improve. Even though I do not think Penn State's offensive line will become one of the better ones in the Big Ten or anything, I do expect it to steadily improve each week as players get more experience and begin to gel together more. It should also be noted that UCF has a great front 7, and is one of the best defenses Penn State will see all year. That is why I am concerned after one game, but that's it just concerned. Now say they come out next week against Akron and Hack is running for his life and they can't run, then I'll REALLY be worried.

This was very good win for the Nittany Lions for a lot of reasons. First off, it is very good to start the Coach Franklin Era with a win. Secondly, they dominated this game and easily could have and quite honestly should have won comfortably. However, they did a good job of not letting this game get away and still finding a way to win. This team showed a lot of resiliency and fight today, which should be no surprise after everything these young men have been through during their time in Happy Valley. Finally, UCF is a very good team. This was one of 6 games (along with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Maryland) I identified as games that would give the Nittany Lions fits this season. There is zero reason they shouldn't win their other 6 games. So it is nice to be 1-0 so far in their 6 toughest games. 8 wins would be awesome this season, today was a big step toward 8 wins. One final thing, how about this quote from Coach Franklin? "We're going to be partying all the way back to the United States." Coach, you and your players deserve it.

Other Notes
-Today Zach Zwinak became the 18th player in school history to top 2,000 career rushing yards. Congratulations, Zach.

- Christian Hackenberg's 454 passing yards was not just a career high, but also broke Zach Mills' single game record set back in 2001. If I was a betting man, I'd say Hack breaks his own record at some point.

- Four true freshman saw reps today. WRs Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall, defensive back Grant Haley, and tight end Mike Gesicki. Godwin caught two passes for 13 yards, Gesicki caught one pas for 9 yards, and Haley looked very good returning kicks as he averaged 29.5 yards per return.

- DaeSean Hamilton's 165 receiving yards was a new Penn State single game freshman record. The previous record was 125 yards by Deion Butler against Wisconsin in 2005.

Angelo Mangiro (66) and Austin Johnson with the Dan Rooney Trophy presented to PSU for winning the Croke Park Classic.
- Next week's game is at noon against Akron at home. The game can be seen on ABC and Akron is one of the 10 or 15 worst programs in the FBS, and Penn State should easily win by 25-30. If not more.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Previewing Penn State vs UCF.

What: 2014 Croke Park Classic; Penn State Nittany Lions (0-0) vs UCF Golden Knights (0-0)
When: Saturday, August, 30th, 2014. 8:30am, on ESPN2.
Where: Croke Park Stadium, Dublin, Ireland.

After 7 months of anticipation the James Franklin Era of Penn State Football begins this Saturday. The Nittany Lions, who are 1 point favorites in this game, travel to Dublin to take on the defending Fiesta Bowl Champion UCF Knights, who defeated the Nittany Lions in a 34-31 shootout at Beaver Stadium a year ago. This year's game however should be much different. UCF has lost a lot of fire power on offense, Penn State has a brand new offensive line, and both teams have solid defenses. So I certainly do not expect there to be a combined 64 points again this year.

Pete DiNovo
On offense UCF is replacing their two best players from a year ago, QB Blake Bortles and RB Storm Johnson. Redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo has been tabbed by UCF coach George O'Leary as the quarterback to replace Bortles this season. DiNovo comes with high expectations, the pro-style quarterback has a good arm and O'Leary has stated he is further along than Bortles was as a freshman. The USA Today has also projected DiNovo to be one of the 5 best new quarterbacks in the country this fall. However, this will be the first game action DiNovo has ever seen in his college career. Penn State has a good secondary, and a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback. Both of these aspects could give DiNovo fits on Saturday, and welcome him rudely to college football.

DiNovo will still have plenty of weapons around him even with Storm Johnson gone. WRs Rannell Hall, Breshad Perriman, and JJ Worton combined for 143 receptions last year and are all back this year. Penn State's secondary will have to play much better than they did vs UCF a year ago when the Knights had 7 plays of 20+ yards. I believe they will. They are better coached, better players, and have more depth this season. However Lucas, Amos, Williams, Davis, Keiser, Golden, and Haley better be ready to go on Saturday. When you combine how high O'Leary is on DiNovo with the fact UCF has three very good WRs back, they will try and throw the ball Saturday. Sophomore Will Stanback takes over as the starting running back after rushing for 443 yards and 6 touchdowns as Storm Johnson's backup a year ago.

On defense UCF returns 8 starters. The Golden Knights' defense is one of the best Penn State will see all season. Honestly, it could be the second best defense they see all year next to Michigan State. It all starts up front where UCF has a very good defensive line. They have 6 defensive linemen that have started at least one game for the Golden Knights before. They also brought in highly touted JUCO defensive tackle Lance McDowell. The Golden Knights will be rotating 7 very good defensive linemen during Saturday's game, and as we all know Penn State's offensive line does not have much experience. This matchup could very easily decide the game Saturday. We will find out very quickly what guys like Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia, and Derek Dowrey can do. If the offensive line struggles, I expect to see Brenden Mahon get some time at guard.

UCF also has one of the nation's top linebacker in Terrance Plummer who is the heart and soul of their defense. Penn State must account for him at all times on Saturday. 2013 freshman All-American Jacoby Glenn is a very good shutdown corner. He will be given the of shutting down Penn State's lone experienced WR, Geno Lewis, and helping to coral Hack and the passing attack. UCF also has a pair of seniors at the safety positions in Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander. Last year UCF ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense, and should be even better this year. Needless to say, it will not be easy sledding for the Nittany Lions offensively on Saturday.

It will be very important on Saturday for Penn State's defense to play well. Deion Barnes, Anthony Zettel, and CJ Olaniyan need to get in DiNovo's face in passing situations and put pressure on him. The Nittany Lions inexperience at WR and on the OL is a bad combination to have going against a defense like UCF's. Penn State must take advantage the Golden Knights having a freshman QB in his first career game under the center, and must also stop the rushing attack. It will also be very important for Zwinak, Belton, and Lynch to get the Nittany Lions' rushing attack going to make it easier on the passing game and all the inexperienced WRs. I think the Nittany Lions will need a big games out of Jesse James and Kyle Carter to win Saturday. These two need to play well and be reliable targets for Christian Hackenberg while guys like Chris Godwin, DeaSean Hamilton, and Saeed Blacknall learn the offense and adjust to college ball. I expect Penn State's offense to get better as the season progresses and the young guys begin to learn and improve, but Saturday could be a real struggle.

UCF has talent and experience at WR, but zero experience at QB. Penn State has one of the nation's top, young quarterbacks and an experience stable of running backs. However, they have almost no experience on the offensive line and WR. Both UCF and Penn State have good defenses. This will be a low scoring defensive battle. The first team to 20 points might win the game. It will not be like last year's UCF game where it had the feel of last team to get the ball will win. I could easily see Penn State losing this game, it's a coin flip in my opinion, but I'll say the Nittany Lions get Coach Franklin a W in his first game at the helm.
Penn State 20
UCF 17

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Penn State's depth chart set.

Today the Nittany Lions' depth chart for the season opener vs UCF Saturday was released. There are really no surprises. However, we do know now who won some position battles in camp. One such position battle was at the backup quarterback spot. True freshman Trace McSorley is listed as the backup over another true freshman Michael O'Connor. I'd still like to see the highly touted O'Connor redshirted, so that when he takes over for Hack, most likely in 2016, he is a redshirt sophomore instead of a true junior. But that is a discussion for another time.

On the offensive line left tackle Donovan Smith is the lone returning starter, and as was expected most of the offseason redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson will start at right tackle and redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro will be at center. Filling in for Miles Deffienbach at left guard will be Derek Dowrey with Brian Gaia at right guard. Dowrey and Gaia both moved from the DL to OL this offseason, and I am surprised that Brenden Mahon is not starting at one of the guard positions.

With prized WR prospect De'Andre Thompkins getting redshirted true freshmen Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall, redshirt freshman DeaSean Hamilton, and redshirt junior Matt Zanellato are listed as the next top guys on the WR depth chart after Geno Lewis. Jordan Lucas will return punts, with Akeel Lynch and Geno Lewis returning kicks.

Chris Gulla will start at punter. This was expected, but Coach Franklin had said earlier this week they had not yet decided who would punt. Trevor Williams will start opposite Jordan Lucas at the other cornerback position. Da'Quan Davis and true freshman Grant Haley are listed as the backups at cornerback, and both should see significant playing time at CB. The starting safeties are Ryan Keiser and Adrian Amos as expected. Malik Golden should also see a lot of playing time at safety.

The starting linebackers will be Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, and Brandon Bell. Duh. Gary Wooten, Troy Reeder, and Jason Cabinda are listed as their backups and should all see reps. The defensive line left to right will be CJ Olaniyan, Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel, and Deion Barnes. The primary backups are Carl Nassib, Brad Bars, and Garrett Sickels at defensive end and Tyrone Smith, Parker Cothren, and Tarow Barney at defensive tackle. I think we'll see all 10 of these players get reps Saturday.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Previewing the 2014 Nittany Lions: Defensive line.

The most important kog to having a good defense is having a good defensive line. Regardless of defensive scheme, it is important for defensive lineman to eat up blockers in order to allow linebackers to run free and make plays. One of the biggest reasons Penn State is known as Linebacker U is due to years of great defensive line play. A defensive lineman's job does not end there however. They must also put pressure on the opposing quarterback in order to help out the secondary. Finally, defensive lineman must also be able to shed blocks and help stuff the run game. 

For years Penn State's defensive line had one constant, Coach Larry Johnson. However LJ is now in Columbus with Urban and the Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions still have a very good defensive line coach in the young, fiery, and passionate Sean Spencer. And Coach Spencer will have some constants to work with.
Deion Barnes

The Nittany Lions have three returning starters on the defensive line. They are defensive tackle Austin Johnson, and defensive ends Deion Barnes and CJ Olaniyan. These three give Penn State a good foundation to build upon on their defensive front. Barnes was the Big Ten freshman of the year, as well as a freshman All-American in 2012. Hia numbers took a bit of a step backward last year, but also received a lot more attention from offensive lines and double teams than the year before. Last year Barnes made a lot of plays no one notices. Batting balls down at the line, eating up blockers, etc. However, Penn State really needs Barnes to get back to being the great pass rusher he was in 2012.

The other starting defensive lineman will be former defensive end turned defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. Zettel is a physical freak, and has a motor that never stops while on the football field. This showed in the 12 sacks he recorded as a back up defensive end the past two seasons. Zettel has got the size at 6'4 278 pounds to help stuff the run game, but also had the explosiveness and athleticism to rush the QB. He will be an absolute handful for guards and centers to handle this fall. I look for a big season out of Zettel.

JUCO transfer Tarow Barney and redshirt freshman Parker Cothren have both had impressive offseasons. Both of these players should also see playing time at defensive tackle spelling Johnson and Zettel. Redshirt junior Carl Nassib has had an outstanding camp, and has probably worked his way into the DL rotation. Senior Tyrone Smith is also in the mix to see some reps at defensive tackle.

At defensive end redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels is a player to watch as a possible breakout candidate on defensive. The 6'4 250 pound New Jersey native was one of the top defensive ends in the nation in the 2013 recruiting, and has a great combination of speed and size. Sickels has a great first step that makes him very explosive off the edge rushing the passer, but also has the size to hold his own against the run. Penn State also gets senior Brad Bars back from an Achilles injury to provide depth at defensive end, and Bars has been extremely impressive all offseason and into camp. He looks 100% healthy and better than ever.

The Nittany Lions have depth, experience, and talent on the defensive line this year. It should help make Sean Spencer's job a little easier this season, while also helping to give the Nittany Lions the foundation for a solid defense in 2014. The defense must be better this fall than it was last year, and I believe it will be. I look for the defense to take a big leap this year, and once again be a formidable defense like Penn State fans were used to seeing in the past. This all starts up front with the defensive line.

It is officially game week. So as I wrap up by position by position previews for the 2014 season it is time to give my season prediction. Penn State will be better than last year. They could win the Big Ten East. They get Michigan State at home, as well as a Braxton Miller-less Ohio State. The Michigan State game will be by far the hardest of the season, but if the Nittany Lions muster an upset of the Spartans in the season's final game they could be looking at a division crown. Ohio State will struggle without Miller, and getting them in Happy Valley makes that a winnable game. Ultimately though I see the Nittany Lions going 9-3 or 8-4. UCF, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana (as we saw last year don't dismiss their offense), and Michigan State will all be tough tests. I see the Nittany Lions going either 3-2 or 2-3 in those 5 games, while winning their other 7. This season should be a fun one as the Coach Franklin era begins. I truly believe this team is on the cusp of being a national powerhouse once Coach Franklin gets a few more top ten recruiting classes in here. But the Nittany Lions have enough talent right now to be a player in the challenging Big Ten East this season.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Penn State vs a..... volcano?

Last night the Associated Press reported that Penn State’s season opener vs UCF next Saturday could be in jeopardy due to a volcano. Yes, a volcano. Remember in 2010 when that volcano blew in Iceland and sent volcanic ash throughout the sky leading to over 10,000 flights in Europe being cancelled/delayed? Well, that volcano appears ready to blow again.

Resident who live near the volcano in Iceland have been evacuated for safety. Even though the volcano itself does not pose any danger to anyone in Dublin, it is over 850 miles away, the ash could wreak havoc. Penn State has a game at home against Akron on September 6th, so the Nittany Lions can not afford to get stranded in Europe. UCF has a bit more of a window to work with as they will not play again until September 13th. Also, the players on both sides have classes to be at. Students, fans, and alumni planning to travel to the game also have class and work to be to. So none of them can afford to be stuck in Europe either.

Right now it is unaware if there is any type of contingency plan in place. However, the schools will want to have this issue resolved ASAP.  There is too much money to be lost by all parties involved (the schools, conferences, TV, etc.) by cancelling the game. So that will not happen. Since UCF came to Happy Valley last year it is reasonable to guess that if the teams, fans, and students are unable to travel to Dublin that the game would be hosted by UCF down in Orlando. As of now however it appears the schools are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping the volcano cooperates.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Previewing the 2014 Nittany Lions: The secondary.

In football a lot can change in the span of one year. Last year at this time I along with many others who cover Penn State Football were talking about how the secondary could prove to be a real mess and the team’s biggest weakness. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened in 2013. However, 2014 is different. The Nittany Lions’ secondary is deeper, more experienced, and a whole lot better. So much better that it could prove to be one of the team’s strengths, especially on defense, this fall.

Jordan Lucas

The secondary if anchored by a pair of All-Big Ten performers in cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety/do it all man Adrian Amos. Both of these players are preseason all-conference this season, and both find themselves on the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award. Lucas, a true junior, burst onto the scene last year as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive backs. In 2013 Lucas was third in the Big Ten with 16 pass break ups, and was tied for the team lead in interceptions with 3. This season Lucas will be looked upon to take another step forward and become a shutdown cornerback that can help control opponents top WR threat.

Senior Adrian Amos will be relied upon for both his play on the field and his leadership this fall. Amos is a very physical and athletic player. This season Amos will play safety as well as a rover type position. He will be all over the field on defense. Amos can do it all on defense. He can play in coverage, he can help in run support, and he can rush the passer. He is a very dynamic player, and one the Nittany Lions will be leaning upon heavily this fall.

Trevor Williams

At the other cornerback position this fall Da’Quan Davis will see playing time. Earlier this week the junior was quoted of saying that he is ready to show everyone at Beaver Stadium what he can do. Davis is a very athletic player, which will help him stay with men in coverage. However, Davis’ coverage skills are still untested to some degree. Davis could experience lumps early on, but I’d expect him to be a good cornerback for the Nittany Lions this year. Junior Trevor Williams will also see plenty of time at cornerback. Last fall Williams had games where he looked very good, and then some where he looked not so good. However, the experience can only prove to have done him well. Williams, who came to Penn State as a WR, took a lot of steps forward last fall. Especially in his ability to stay in coverage and be in good position on opposing wide receivers, I look for that to only improve further this year.

Senior Ryan Keiser will start at safety for a second straight season. Keiser was a bit of a whipping boy for Penn State fans last year as he was often times out of place and burnt in coverage. Some of that however can also be chalked up to poor schemes by former defensive coordinator John Butler. Keiser will have to improve this year in his coverage ability though. New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has made it clear that Penn State will often times have five defensive backs on the field with one of them being a hybrid type guy that plays all over the field. That hybrid guy this season will be Amos, so that puts a lot on Keiser in terms of over the top coverage at safety. It is time for Ryan Keiser to step up. He is the player in the secondary that worries me most.

Sophomore Malik Golden will also see time at safety this year. The former WR may have been the Nittany Lions most improved defensive player from the Syracuse game to the Wisconsin game last year. He just simply kept getting better as the season went on last year, and he topped it off with a very good game in the season finale vs Wisconsin. Golden could very well supplant Keiser as a starter at safety before the end of the season this fall, especially if he continues taking steps forward and improving as he did a year ago. Redshirt senior Jesse Della Valle, sophomore Anthony Smith, redshirt freshman Kasey Gaines, and freshman Grant Haley could also see playing time in the secondary this season.

Last season Penn State’s secondary was the team’s weakest link, however this fall it should prove to be one of the defense’s strengths. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas are two of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs. Players like Trevor Williams, Da’Quan Davis, and Malik Golden have all grown leaps and bounds since the Syracuse game a year ago. Ryan Keiser is also in his second year as a starter and should improve. Plus, there is a lot of young talent behind these guys. Penn State’s secondary should be much better this fall, and could prove to even be one of the defense’s strengths.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Previewing the 2014 Nittany Lions: Special teams.

Special teams is the one aspect of a football team that people overlook the most. Usually special teams only receive attention whenever something goes wrong and it costs a team a game. Well we have seen special teams cost the Nittany Lions plenty of games in recent years, especially in 2012 when Ficken had all his issues. Coach Franklin has put a new emphasis on special teams however. A major sign of this was assigning Charles Huff to be the special teams coordinator. The Nittany Lions have only had a special teams coordinator once, John Butler in 2012, since LJ left that position to become DL coach in 2000. This alone should make a huge difference on special teams in 2014.

For a third straight season Kickin’ Sam Ficken will be the Nittany Lions placekicker. We know Ficken’s story by now. He was unprepared to start, but got thrusted into starting duty after Anthony Fera left for Texas when the sanctions came down in July of 2012. He has since become a lightning rod for Nittany Lion fans far and wide. Last season Sam Ficken failed to improve over his tumultuous 2012 season. He hit 41 out of 42 extra point attempts, but the problem was with field goals. He hit just 15 out of 23 field goal attempts for a less than acceptable 65.2% conversion rate. The Nittany Lions also lost to Nebraska largely due to missed kicks by Ficken. This came after a rough 2012 season when Ficken went 39 of 41 on extra points, with one of the missed extra points costing the Nittany Lions a game against Virginia, and 14 of 21 on field goals. That’s just a 66.7% conversion rate, so his conversion rate actually went down last season.  

While the Nittany Lions could benefit from having a new placekicker, that will have to wait until after Ficken graduates this year. According to Coach Franklin Ficken has grown leaps and bounds since spring ball, and that is confidence is growing each and every day. Coach Franklin also dubbed Ficken a team captain. Which is a show of confidence and faith by the coaching staff in Ficken.

At punter Penn State will need to replace a two year starter in Alex Butterworth. Last season Butterworth was one of the Nittany Lions’ most improved players, and this will not be overly easy. However, they have a young guy with a heck of a leg by. 6’1, 193 pound redshirt freshman Chris Gulla will handle the punting duties for the Nittany Lions this fall. Gulla turned down scholarship offers out of high school to walk-on at Penn State, stating that it was always his dream as a kid to play football at Penn State. Gulla has a strong leg and should be able to step right in and replace Butterworth without missing a beat. A good punter can be a sneaky, good weapon for a football team to have. The Nittany Lions should have one this fall in Chris Gulla. Aslo, Gulla has the ability to be a placekicker as well so if Ficken falters he could be a back up plan.

As for the return game we could see a variety of different players returning kicks and punts. Jesse Della Valle, De’Andre Thompkins, Cole Chiappiale, Bill Belton, DeaSean Hamilton, and Trevor Williams are all possibilities. Della Valle has been the punt returner for the last two seasons, so one can expect to see him doing it again this year, at least to begin the season. However, I’d like to see true freshman De’Andre Thompkins given a chance to return kicks and punts. Thompkins is already the fastest player on the team, and has the ability to make a big play every time he touches the ball. He is the best option for returning kicks and punts, and the coaching staff is extremely high on him. I suspect we’ll see him returning punts and kicks sooner rather than later this season.