James Franklin has been expecting this.
Sitting down with the Penn State head coach in his office this summer for a full preseason interview, topics ranged from the program’s ascent to the offense and defense. Under the gun to wrap up before a previously scheduled eye appointment, attention turned to the Nittany Lions’ special teams units, specifically at punt and kick return.
During the 2016 season, the Nittany Lions produced a kick return average of 19.7 yards per attempt and 6.5 yards per punt return. John Reid led the Nittany Lions with 22 attempts for 166 yards of returns, with a long of 59 yards against Pitt.
In importing explosive speed and talent in its athletes through recruiting in recent years, would the return game be an area he felt could produce more of an impact on games this season?
“Very much so,” he said. “We're going to get more out of that this year.”
Though the sample size is admittedly small, through two games this season, Franklin’s confidence appears to have been well-placed.
Bolstered by stifling efforts defensively, DeAndre Thompkins has emerged as a dangerous punt returner for the NIttany Lions, taking seven attempts back 158 yards for a 22.6 yards per return average. The effort includes a 61-yard touchdown return in Penn State’s opener against Akron, but was backed up by another three returns for 31 yards last week in the Lions’ 33-14 win against Pitt.
Earning back the responsibility he had as a redshirt freshman from an injured Reid, Thompkins elaborated on what he’s identified as the keys to having success as a punt returner. First, he said, is to turn his eyes downfield to find his teammates and effectively run away from them. They are, after all, blocking for him to leave room to run.
The cumulative impact harkens back to a childhood activity.
“Punt return really is backyard football,” he said. “Once you catch the ball, it is kind of like just get away from everybody who is trying to tackle you. It is like playing tag, basically.”
So far, the concept has proven successful for Thompkins, who is currently ranked No. 5 in the country for his 22.6 yards per return average. And, maybe as important, his Nittany Lion teammates have rallied around the possibilities now on the table.
Already one of the program’s more lighthearted, effervescent and confident players, the early success has generated an atmosphere in which the Nittany Lions now expect to produce the same type of results moving forward.
“We've always believed in DeAndre and his ability, but I think last week was just a spark, a refresher of what he can do and what we can do as that unit in freeing him,” said special teams captain Nick Scott. “His confidence is through the roof right now, as it should be, and we're just playing within the framework of our unit. We're coming out hungry and Coach Huff has been doing an unbelievable job of keeping our confidence high and putting us in the best position to be successful.”
In framing the importance of the return game, Franklin noted the impact of having skill at either punt or kick return that affects the thinking and approach of an opponent. Said Franklin, “You want a guy that as an opposing coach, you're afraid to punt the ball to him or you're afraid to kick the ball to him. It changes everything.”
In Thompkins, and with the expectation that Saquon Barkley at kick return will show improvement soon, the Nittany Lions anticipate having those weapons.
And with them, Franklin said, the level of success that can’t come without that element is more likely to come to fruition.
“For us to be who we want to be, we gotta be dangerous in all three phases,” said Franklin. “It probably doesn't get talked about enough how much we improved on special teams, probably more so than the office last year in my opinion. But we haven't been dangerous. We have a chance to be dangerous in all three phases this year and scare people.”