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Penn State Football: More Touchdowns, Not Just Julius The Secret to Replacing Ficken

by on June 01, 2015 2:15 AM

Penn State averaged 20.6 points per game in 2014. And that’s with Sam Ficken.

Without him, the Nittany Lions averaged only 13.

Now imagine how they’ll do sans Sam in 2015.

They could have a Fickens of a time – you know, the best of times and then the worst of times. The onus to avoid that is placed on his successor – redshirt freshman Joey Julius. Or, more likely, the Nittany Lion offense.

Either way, it won’t be an easy task. Ficken’s field goals alone accounted for 27 percent of the Nittany Lions’ points last season, as the offense struggled behind an inexperienced O-line.

For context: That percentage of points is nearly double Penn State’s average of 15 percent over the previous four seasons – as well as James Franklin’s 12.5 percent in three seasons (7%, 15%, 11.5%) as head coach at Vanderbilt.

TO THE POINT

By comparison:

-- In 2015, national champion Ohio State’s juggernaut offense needed just under 6 percent of its points from the field goal game – with Sean Nuernberger’s three-pointers accounting for only 39 of its overwhelming season-total of 672 points (PSU had 268 in three less games) for an average of 44.8 points per game. And yes, less than half of that in regulation against Penn State.

-- In 2012-13, Penn State averaged almost 28 points with Bill O’Brien calling the shots and veteran Matt McGloin, then Boy Wonder Christian Hackenberg throwing the football.

-- In 2011-13, in Franklin’s three seasons in the high-scoring Southeastern Conference Vanderbilt’s offense manufactured 29 points per game. Admittedly, Franklin says “we just did whatever we had to do to move the ball in the SEC.”

As Ficken’s successor (the replacement part is yet to be determined), Julius’ task is larger even than his 5-11, 244-pound frame -- which is bigger than that of current Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski (240 pounds) and legendary NFL bowling-ball fullbacks Norm Bulaich (6-1, 217) or Don Noittingham (5-10, 210).

“Joe has a really, really strong leg,” Franklin said during spring practice. “When he hits the ball, it sounds differently than the other guys. It just jumps off his foot. And he’s been really accurate. A lot of time the power guys don’t have the consistency. He’s shown both.”

But will Franklin to call on Julius as he did Ficken?

IN A FIX MINUS FICKEN

Last season, the senior almost always delivered, with his field goals the difference in four games last year. Penn State’s margins of victory against Central Florida two points), Rutgers (three), Indiana (six) and Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl (one) all came as a result of Ficken’s one or more three-pointers in those games.

If Ficken hadn’t been so successful – going 24 of 29 on the season – Penn State would have been shut out of a bowl game and could have gone 5-7 or even 4-8. As it was, Penn State attempted more field goals (18 percent of all possessions) than its offense scored TDs (26, 16 percent).

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Here’s how rare that is: According to my buddy Andy Wiesner, who teaches a sports analytics class at Penn State, those numbers are so skewed that they are outliers – or, maybe, outcasts. Under Franklin at Vanderbilt, the Commodores scored a TD on 28 percent of their possessions and attempted a field goal just 12 percent of the time. Under O’Brien in 2012-13, Penn State was eerily similar, at 29 percent TDs and 15 percent field goal tries.

The Nittany Lions’ offense needs to score more in 2015 just to give Julius some leg room.

“His things are not mental. His things now are fundamental,” special teams coordinator Charles Huff said after the Blue-White Game. “That will come with doing reps. We feel comfortable going in. Of course, there will be growing pains. He knows that. He has made tremendous progress from the first kick he had here to today. Is he going to be like Sam Ficken and hit seven game-winners? Who knows? But will he be mentally ready to do that? Absolutely.”

Nonetheless, Prof. Wiesner posits that it's very unlikely Julius will be as successful as a redshirt freshman that Ficken was as a senior. He’s never attempted a field goal in a college football game. It’s more likely that Julius will be more like the Ficken of 2012 (14 of 21, with one-game winner and one game-loser) or 2013 (15 of 23, with two game winners and one game loser).

All of which brings an increased burden on Franklin, offensive coordinator John Donovan, Hackenberg and the Penn State offense to score touchdowns in 2015. They weren’t very good at that in 2014, that’s for sure. The PSU offense scored just eight TDs in eight Big Ten conference games. They had just 26 overall – 13 on the ground, 13 in the air. Penn State scored 42 and 43 touchdowns the previous two seasons and Vandy went 41, 42 and 49 in Franklin’s three seasons there.

Scoring TDs is the mainstay of a quarterback’s livelihood. McGloin always said getting in the end zone was his Job No. 1. “That’s what it’s all about. Not even close,” he said back in 2011. That was on the heels of the 2010 season, when McG engineered 24 TD drives in 27 quarters, while Rob Bolden had only 11 – also in 27 quarters.

Julius is an excellent long-ball hitter. At Lower Dauphin High School, he had longs of 47 yards as a freshman, 52 as a sophomore, 46 as a sophomore and 54 as a senior. Overall, made an impressive 93 of 96 PATs and was 32 of 49 (65.3%) on field goal attempts.

NOT THAT SPECIAL

He’ll have to do better this season, since as of late Penn State hasn’t been getting any help from its special teams, either. (Due in part to a sanction-weakened special teams corps, comprised mostly of youngsters and walk-ons.) It’s been 119 quarters since the Nittany Lions’ special teams have scored a TD. That’s a drought of nearly 29 games, dating back to the second quarter of the Oct. 27, 2012 game against Ohio State. In that contest, Mike Yancich blocked an OSU punt and Mike Hull recovered it in the end zone for a TD.

Since then, nada.

Last season, the young and the restless – Grant Haley and Anthony Zettel – both had pick sixes for the Penn State defense. But that was it. At Vandy, Franklin’s defense and special teams scored a combined 10 touchdowns in three seasons.

Franklin understands the challenges. He knows Huff needs some help. “I don’t know if you guys have seen Huff,” Franklin said of his beefy assistant in the spring. “I would say he doesn’t look much like a guy who has experience kicking the ball. So we’re going to have to do some things with that as well.” That included Franklin bringing in a special teams consultant over the winter and hired a quality control coach for the special teams.

A KICK OUT OF KICKERS

We know Franklin is high on Julius and speaks highly of him. Which is important. Franklin is part-kicker whisperer and part-Norman Vincent Place-kicker.

At Vandy, kicker Casey Spear was a team captain and at Penn State so was Ficken. It’s paid big dividends for Franklin. Spear went from a 57 percent to an 81.4 percent kicker under Franklin, while Ficken went from 66 percent to 82.7 percent, with nine field goals over 40 yards last season compared to five kicks over 40 in his first three seasons.

“Julius has been good. He had a really, really good spring,” Franklin said. “He has a strong leg, he has tremendous confidence. What I really like about Joe is that he’s not your typical kicker. He was a high-level soccer player, so he is fiercely competitive. Actually, when the pressure is on him that’s when he likes it the most.”

Well, if that’s the case, there should be a lot for Julius to like, beginning in just 96 days.

 

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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