James Franklin isn’t willing to divulge the names that will be responsible for Penn State’s improved production in punt and kick return during the 2017 season.
Finishing last year rated No. 94 in the country for punt returns at just 6.47 yards per return, and No. 87 for kickoff returns at 19.69, only good for 11th and 10th in the conference, respectively, the units left something to be desired.
This season, Franklin expects that to change.
“We're going to get more out of that this year,” he said. “It’s not a frustration point, but for us to be who we want to be, we gotta be dangerous in all three phases.
“We made dramatic improvements. It probably doesn't get talked about enough how much we improved on special teams, probably more so than the offense 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.”
Indeed, the Nittany Lions’ special teams improvements were of a dramatic nature in the context of the program’s S&P+ ratings from the previous two seasons. Jumping from No. 75 to No. 11 last year in the measurement’s “play-for-play special teams efficiency, weighted for overall importance,” the Nittany Lions found their special teams units to be assets.
As interviews with Franklin and special teams coordinator Charles Huff would reveal this month, the next step is to utilize the elite-level talent a bolstered roster now boasts.
“The key in any return game is the returner. The returner has got to be electric,” said Huff. “In order for the returner to be electric, you gotta have electric players in your program. The more electric players in your program, the better you're going to be. We have more electric players in our program now.”
As a result, Huff explained that the scheme that brought the group so close to breaking the big one a season ago is more likely to produce the home run plays the program has been seeking.
In punt return, John Reid led the Nittany Lions last season with a long return of 59 yards in the team’s loss at Pitt early in the season. In his other 21 returns on the year, however, Reid averaged just 5.1 yards per return.
At kick return, meanwhile, Miles Sanders took the bulk of the team’s returns with 33 for 688 yards. And throughout the group that included Nick Scott, Saquon Barkley, and Brandon Polk, the Nittany Lions did produce a few 30-plus yard returns.
A commonality remained in both categories, however, which came in the form of no returns for touchdowns in either department.
Explaining that Reid’s inexperience returning punts, new to the role for the 2016 season, likely contributed to the Pitt return not winding up in the end zone, Huff said the program’s recruiting hauls will allow for more specialized returners this season.
“The scheme will get you close. So teaching the guys how to block, teaching them who to hold up, teaching all of that is going to get you close. The player ability puts it in the end zone,” said Huff. “The home run comes when you put great scheme, great coaching and an elite player together. What coach is saying is, we're going to be better because we have so many more elite, explosive players, and the John Reids and the Miles Sanders now have experience.”
Highlighting what amounted to an iconic special teams play last season as an example, the Ohio State block, scoop and score from Marcus Allen and Grant Haley, Huff said the extensive experience of those players paid dividends in the game’s biggest moment.
Whether those roles will belong to a healthy Polk, Sanders, Scott, DeAndre Thompkins, K.J. Hamler, Mark Allen, Josh McPhearson, Mac Hippenhammer, or Lamont Wade remains to be seen, but Penn State’s intentions for the 2017 are clear.
Having a collection of players with returning experience and elite-level talent, the Nittany Lions will aim to produce more game-breaking plays in the return game.
“We're close. I still don't know if we've had people returning the ball at that point of their career that scare people in this league,” 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. And we've had some guys that I think have the ability to do that but just haven't been ready yet and I think we're closer to that now than we've ever been.”