How Penn State football could line up on special teams for the 2022 season

·5 min read

Penn State will have its work cut out for it on special teams this season. That’s not to say the program won’t be good in that facet of the game this year, but it will be difficult given what the team has lost. Do-it-all specialist Jordan Stout left for the NFL — as did punt returner Jahan Dotson — and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig took a job at Oregon, leaving behind unfamiliar replacements.

The Nittany Lions should be young in the kicking game this season if everything breaks right. There are talented freshmen in position to potentially replace Stout and the many roles he occupied in 2021. Those players have the most natural ability at their spots, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to seize the opportunity and lock down starting jobs.

With new special teams coordinator Stacy Collins on the staff, each specialist will have to prove they’re the right person for their respective jobs this fall.

Let’s take a look at the projected starters on special teams this season.

Punter: Freshman Alex Bacchetta

Bacchetta enters the season as the early favorite to take over one of Stout’s old roles as punter. The true freshman has the most talent of any of the three punters on the roster and earned a scholarship as one of the top punters in the 2022 recruiting class. He has a powerful leg and the size to further tap into that strength.

He’s currently listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, giving him excellent size for the position. There may be early struggles for Bacchetta in his career because of his youth and the fact that he would begin punting despite not enrolling at Penn State until the summer. The freshman should quickly position himself as a long-term contributor with the special teams unit, even having the potential to take on more roles down the line after he masters punting.

Field goal kicker: Redshirt freshman Sander Sahaydak

The team’s field goal kicker spot could be split into two roles as it has been in the past with one player taking short field goals and the other taking long ones. The bet here, however, is that Sahaydak’s leg talent shines through and allows him to take over the spot — and full control of it — that was previously held by Stout by the start of the season.

The redshirt freshman was one of the top kickers in the country in the 2021 recruiting class but had the opportunity to sit for a year behind a high level talent like Stout. Now, he’ll be battling redshirt senior Jake Pinegar for the kicking job. Despite his major disadvantage in experience, Sahaydak has a good shot to win the spot. He has more upside than the veteran and with any consistency will likely take the job for the long haul.

Penn State kicker Sander Sahaydak makes a 47 yard field goal during the Blue-White game on Saturday, April 23, 2022.
Penn State kicker Sander Sahaydak makes a 47 yard field goal during the Blue-White game on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

Kickoff specialist: Redshirt freshman Gabriel Nwosu

This is yet another job that once belonged to Stout. He was one of the best kickoff specialists in the country, leaving big shoes to fill but several options to do it. Bacchetta and Sahaydak have strong legs, but giving two roles to a young player seems like a lot to ask of either in their first year starting. While one of the two scholarship freshmen could do the job in a couple years, for now we’ll give it to the specialist with the strongest leg.

Nwosu is built more like he should play in the trenches at 6-foot-6, 276 pounds and uses all of that size to generate plenty of power. He’s unlikely to replicate Stout’s season, and could struggle with accuracy, but the redshirt freshman’s leg strength gives him the best chance to be the starter this season.

Penn State’s Gabriel Nwosu kicks during the Blue-White game on Saturday, April 23, 2022.
Penn State’s Gabriel Nwosu kicks during the Blue-White game on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

Punt returner: Junior Parker Washington

Penn State has utilized multiple punt returners in the past, flipping back and forth between the most reliable option and the most dynamic one. Last year Dotson was the best of both worlds and fortunately for the Nittany Lions, his replacement should be the same. Washington is dynamic in the open field, utilizing strength more than agility while still possessing plenty of the latter to make opponents miss.

He’s not the dynamo Dotson was with the ball in his hands, but few players are. Washington seems to be the front runner to not only give the Nittany Lions upside at punt returner, but also to put someone back there that can secure punts without a major threat of botching them.

Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington runs down the field with the ball from Rutgers defensive back Christian Izien during the game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.
Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington runs down the field with the ball from Rutgers defensive back Christian Izien during the game on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Kick returner: Senior Devyn Ford

Kick returners don’t have the same level of importance that they used to in large part due to the recent rule changes in college football. Most teams tend to opt for a safe returner — a player they know will catch the kickoff — rather than a big play threat thanks to the new rule that allows teams to start drives at the 25 yard line if they fair catch the kick before the 25 yard line.

Ford was a solid option for Penn State in the past and should be that once again for the program. He has some level of wiggle in the open field in case the team is looking for a big play. In all likelihood, he — or whoever is the returner — will just be asked to fair catch anything that comes his way this season.

Penn State running back Devyn Ford runs with the ball during the Blue-White game on Saturday, April 23, 2022.
Penn State running back Devyn Ford runs with the ball during the Blue-White game on Saturday, April 23, 2022.