By Barbara Harrison
Penn State’s annual Blue and White spring game is this Saturday, April 18, and special teams are on Nits’ coach James Franklin’s mind.
The second-year coach has heard the chuckles about another walk-on kicker or non-scholarship punter joining the team.
Penn State’s situation on special teams is no laughing matter, though. It must replace a kicker, has uncertainty at punter, and also at long snapper, all with a season-opening date at Temple on Labor Day weekend off on the horizon months away.
“When we got here and we didn’t have the scholarships available, and trying to decide what you’re going to do, our answer was lets go out and try to recruit as many walk-ons and create competition there, and hopefully you find a couple guys,” Franklin said. “I think we’ve done that, and that was the plan, and that model will shift going forward.”
Scholarship specialists are often a love-hate relationship in college football. As Franklin noted last Saturday, unlike players at any other position, kickers and punters cannot be moved around to try and find a fit if they are unsuccessful, and the Lions know better than anyone the value of contributing scholarship players.
The recently vanished NCAA sanctions left them in the predicament of not recruiting scholarship specialists after the now graduated Sam Ficken (photo above), leading to this year’s predicament: finding capable kickers, punters, and snappers out of a group, albeit a sizable one, of walk-ons.
Penn State has an offer out to three-star sophomore and the nation’s top-rated kicker, Quinn Nordin, but he nor any other scholarship specialists will arrive by September. The Lions also don’t necessarily have a way to create the game-like pressures their inexperienced group will face when the fall arrives, and the Blue-White game doesn’t always offer much opportunity for them. At least, before this year, it didn’t.
The annual spring game, slated for April 18 at Beaver Stadium, will feature a new twist this year. It will start with live field goal kicking in front of whatever crowd shows up before featuring live punting at halftime.
“We’ll have it scripted out, yard lines and hashes and things like that, to see how these guys are going to kick in front of the fans,” Franklin said.
Six kickers dot Penn State’s roster, and presumable all of them, including Lower Dauphin alum Joey Julius, who Franklin called “not your typical kicker,” will get a chance to kick Saturday.
“They’ll have to get it off in the right time and the whole deal, so it will be the snap, the hold, and the kick, and then at halftime we’ll do punting,” Franklin continued. “I feel pretty good about our field goals. There’s still concerns about our punting. It’s not where I think it needs to be. It hasn’t progressed the way I think it should progress.”
Penn State ranked 106th in the country with a net punting average of 34.34 yards. Daniel Pasquariello returns, and with onetime starting punter Chris Gulla now focusing on kicking, it will be either the Australian native that finished 2014 as the Lions’ punter or walk-on Robby Liebel kicking it away on fourth down in 2015. At long snapper, four players are vying for the job held by returner Tyler Yazujian a year ago.
The Blue-White game is an annual event to help evaluate positions. This year, specialist will get more attention, which is needed heading into the fall.
“We don’t have a scholarship [specialist] in our program right now,” Franklin said. “They’re good guys and they’re working really hard; you look at our roster, we have scholarships invested at every position.”