Penn State Football: Franklin’s Assistant Is a Huff About Lions’ Kicking Game
He’s in a Huff in name only.
Still, Penn State’s new special teams coach wasn’t too happy when he first pored over the Nittany Lions’ kicking stats from the 2013 season.
That’s when he read that Penn State junior place-kicker Sam Ficken missed 4 of his last 8 -- and 6 of his final 12 -- goal attempts to close out last season.
“I haven’t seen him. But I know from writings and readings that they struggled a bit at the end last year,” said Charles Huff, who was Vanderbilt’s assistant special teams coach in 2011, followed by stops coaching running backs with the Buffalo Bills (2012) and Western Michigan (2013).
“I don’t hold that against them,” he cautioned. “They’re oh-for-oh in my mind. I hope he comes out and puts it through. That’s his job.”
As it was, Ficken missed 3 of his final 4 three-point attempts to end last season. Over the final five games, he was strictly a short-field option for often-leery former head coach Bill O’Brien. From Game 8 on, Ficken made field goals from 35, 27, 29 and 28 yards. But he also missed from 37, 37, 34 and 31 yards.
Huff thinks the 6-foot-2, 183-pound Ficken might have become tired as the season wore on.
“Usually when a kicker falls off at the end, that means he is over-kicking, his leg is getting tired,” Huff said. “I have to do a good job of monitoring his kicking in practice. It’s like a pitch count for a pitcher. I need to do a good job of keeping track of his pitch count, during practice, during the season. I have to be able to get him strong enough but not too tired. It’s like a Quarter Horse. You want to get him ready for the derby, but you don’t want him to be too tired before he gets there.”
Ficken’s mediocre finish belied his strong start to the 2013 season, when he made 9 of his first 11 attempts, and one of the misses was from 57 yards. That was the near-opposite of 2012, Ficken’s first year as Penn State’s starting kicker. Then, he missed 6 of his first 8 attempts, but finished the year by making 11 of his final 12.
All told, that makes Ficken a 65.9 percent field goal kicker (29 of 44), with four blocks to boot. That could be why Huff isn’t hesitant to repeat the mantra of his boss, Penn State’s new head coach, James Franklin: No starting job is safe.
“We’re always looking to improve,” said Huff, who will also coach the Penn State running backs. “If I had the ability, I would bring in 10 five-star all-pro kickers and let them go at it. In college the only motivator is competition. In the NFL, it’s money. We don’t pay our guys. So if you want to motivate somebody, put someone behind them or beside them that’s just as good or better and the best one will rise to the top.”
COMPETITION ALIVE AND KICKIN'
Ficken – who was 80 of 83 on career PATs -- will have some competition in 2014, that’s for sure.
Also returning for the Nittany Lions is walk-on Chris Gulla, No. 2 on the depth chart as a freshman behind Ficken last season. In the limited windows that PSU practices were open last season, Gulla looked impressive -- his field goal attempts easily covering 40-plus yards in live drills.
Gulla made 17 of his 22 field goal attempts at Toms River (N.J.) High School, where he played for former Nittany Lion Chip LaBarca. His career highlight was a 45-yard final-seconds game-winner against state finalist South Regional.
Definitely in the mix as well is preferred walk-on Jorge Powell, from Miami (Fla.). He visited Penn State two weeks ago and decommitted from Tulane. He made 9 of 12 field goals as a high school senior in Miami, with a long of 47 yards. Powell was 28 of 30 on extra points and had 40 touchbacks on kickoffs. He’ll be a freshman in the fall.
Near the top of Huff's to-do list once spring practice begins is addressing the two kick-off returns Penn State allowed for touchdowns in 2013. Huff wasn’t too happy when that stat was shared with him.
“A good kick-off team starts with a good kicker,” said Huff. “If he can’t put the ball where we need to put it, we’re going to have troubles, no matter how good you are. It starts with a good kicker. And vice versa on the kickoff return team; it starts with a good returner. We have to do a better job specialists-wise of placing the ball where we want it placed on the kick, making sure our kickers protect our coverage. That’s how you have great special teams. As long as your specialists protect your coverage units and your returners protect your return units, you have a chance to be really, really good.”
As it stands, Franklin is unlikely to sit still for bad kicking. He’s accustomed to almost the best. Over three seasons at Vandy, Carey Spear made 39 of 50 attempts (78%), with just one block, and made 101 of 102 extra points. Huff worked with Spear for one season.
Now, at Penn State, Huff definitely must find a punter. Two-year starter Alex Butterworth, who netted just 37.6 yards per punt in 2012-13, has graduated. For his part, Gulla can also punt. He had a 42-yard punting average for Toms River. Huff would like one punter and one kicker, but he can be persuaded otherwise.
“Hopefully, we can structure this thing so that they can start focusing on just one,” Huff said. “That’s part of bringing competition in. … Hopefully, as I get to know them better we can put one in one department and one in the other. That way they can focus on the one that suits them best.
“But, if you’re the best at both you’ll be out there for both. I truly believe in playing the best guy, whether you’re Rian Lindell with the Buffalo Bills or Jason Heck, who was my kicker in high school -- and was a toe kicker. If you’re a great kicker, punter and kick-off guy, you’ll play.”