Lions have the chance to be strong on special teams yet again

UNIVERSITY PARK — Special teams were a major obstacle for Penn State not that long ago, then it all changed last season when a special teams highlight turned into the program’s most important play in many years.

Marcus Allen’s blocked field goal and Grant Haley’s touchdown return led to a stunning upset of Ohio State, and eventually a Big Ten title.

That one play, though, was far from the only big one turned in by PSU specialists last year.

Kicker Joey Julius made national headlines with crushing hits to knock return men backwards.

Place-kicker Tyler Davis set a school record by making 18 consecutive field goals.

Not to be outdone, true freshman punter Blake Gillikin turned out be a game-changing weapon, averaging 42.8 yards to earn freshman All-America honors.

Julius will not be on the team this season as he deals with personal issues, but the Nittany Lions’ other kicking specialists are back and should be big factors in the team’s success.

Special teams coordinator Charles Huff called Davis an “unbelievable kicker,” and Davis certainly showed how reliable he is by making 22-of-24 field goals and all 62 PATs a year ago.

“I really feel Tyler Davis is probably taking the biggest step maturity-wise of a lot of men on the team now,” Huff said. “(He) is almost like 60 when you look at him compared to everybody else. He’s a lot older (22, turning 23 Sept. 29). But he is such a mature kid.

“If you watch the way he works, if you watch the way he warms up, it’s almost like meticulous. It’s like Phil Mickelson. He goes out and does the same routine every single day. It’s almost like ‘Groundhog Day.’ But because of that, he’s so consistent, and he’s so reliable, and he’s done that this summer with kickoffs and field goals.”

Davis handled kickoffs late last season when Julius wasn’t available, and he’s expected to do so at the start of the year. Redshirt freshman Alex Barbir also is a candidate for that job.

Huff praised Davis for the way he takes care of his body while getting stronger and faster, things some people wouldn’t necessarily associate with kickers. The senior’s leadership also has come a long way.

“He’s even taken a role now of helping the younger guys,” Huff said. “He’s become a little bit more vocal, which shows his maturity and growth. And that’s something we challenged him with this summer, to start taking a little bit more of a leadership role.”

Gillikin came in as a highly touted punter, then exceeded expectations with his strong freshman numbers. Still, Gillikin could have been even better, he acknowledges, if he would have been more consistent.

“Last year I had a couple really good games and a couple games where I couldn’t punt the ball for my life,” he said.

Improving as a punter comes down to working on a lot of little specific things so that the overall effort remains consistent.

“I’ve been doing more drill work, having my technique be the same every single time,” Gillikin said. “That’s really important as a specialist because there’s so many little things that could go wrong and little tweaks that you can make to your form.

“Punting is a skill, punting is an art. It’s definitely difficult in the Big Ten to be consistent just because of all the environmental factors — you’ve got the wind, you’ve got the cold, the snow, all this stuff. It’s something I’ve definitely worked on, and it was an adjustment coming from a warmer climate down in the South. But this year with that experience, it’s probably going to be a little easier.”

For Gillikin, success won’t be determined this season by a bigger punting average. It will come down to how he fares in situational punting.

“I wouldn’t even put a number on it,” he said when asked if he can average 45 yards. “My goal is to help the defense out as best I can. Obviously our offense is going to move the ball a lot, so we’re not necessarily going to be punting with a full field every time.

“Something I’ve worked on in the offseason is be able to pin the opponent deeper in their territory, which I think is going to be important this year.”

John Reid’s knee injury costs the Lions a proven and aggressive punt returner. DeAndre Thompkins, Mark Allen and Brandon Polk are among those who could get opportunities there.

On kickoff return, Miles Sanders handled the bulk of duties last year, averaging 20.8 yards on 33 returns. Nick Scott also has experience back there, and star running back Saquon Barkley could get some chances as well, depending on game situations.

“We feel really good about the guys we have,” Huff said of the return men. “That’s probably one area going into summer camp that we feel like we can make a big improvement in, not because we’re going to draw up some great play or not because we’ve got this secret weapon, but just the guys are a year older. They understand the scheme a little bit more.”