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How ‘Special’ Were Penn State’s Special Teams in 2018?

by on December 13, 2018 8:00 PM

How “special” were Penn State’s special teams in 2018?

In many cases, the answer was, “Not very.”

But before we dig even deeper into that rabbit hole, let’s begin with the good. And even a bit of the great.

Elite? Meet K.J., DeAndre and — at times — even Jake.

In 2018 — with one game yet to play — Penn State’s kickoff return squad ranks No. 13 in the nation, with an average of 24.6 yards per return. That’s the best average in James Franklin’s five years at Penn State.

That unit has been paced by K.J. Hamler, who ranked No. 18 in major college football and third in the Big Ten, averaging 26 yard per return — with lengthy bursts of 67, 58, 52 (twice) and 33 yards. And it was highlighted by Johnathan Thomas’ 94-yard KR at Indiana.

Then there’s punt returner DeAndre Thompkins, who ranks 24th in the country and third in the Big Ten, at 9.8 yards per runback, with returns of 39 (for a TD), 32 and 29 yards. (Thompkins also ranked fifth overall in punt returns in 2017 and 38th in 2015.)

And let’s not forget Jake Pinegar, the Nittany Lions’ true freshman field goal kicker.

After a very inauspicious 3 of 7 start, Pinegar reacted like he got a kick in the pants. The 19-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa, finished the 2018 season #Jakestrong, making 12 of his final 14 attempts, for a big-league closing percentage of 85.7%. That includes field goals from 42, 44, 44 and 49 (twice) yards.

But…after that? Meh.

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WHAT THE STATS SAY

In fact, six of the nine major special teams categories where the NCAA tracks and compares statistics nationally, the Nittany Lions got worse from 2017 to 2018.

And, when it came to the return game — both returning and defending — Penn State got worse, not better, over the second half of the season. (Penn State’s averages for punt returns and both kickoff and punt return defense all worsened in the final six games, while its kickoff return average improved by less than a yard.)

In many cases, it wasn’t pretty:

The 2018 season was just 192 seconds old when Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans returned Penn State’s first kickoff of the year 100 yards for a touchdown. Then there were a pair of lost onsides kicks (and one gained) — PSU was the only Big Ten team fail onsides two times; two punting disasters that turned into two first-half safeties vs. Iowa; and four blocked field goals, according to the NCAA.

HEART-STOPPING STARTS

Then there’s a number that cuts right to the heart of one of Franklin’s game-deciding statistical categories: Drive starts. It is a crucial arbiter of field position, often predicated on naughty — and nice — special teams play.

Less-than-great special teams play has consequences.

In 2017, Penn State had a 9-yard advantage on drive starts, with its average drive beginning at its own 34-yard line and its opponents beginning their offensive drives at their own 25. That’s almost a full first-down difference.

In 2018, that margin shrunk considerably, to just 2 yards difference. Penn State’s average offensive drive started at its own 31, while its opponents started their drives, on average, at their own 29.

The fact that Penn State’s overall net punting average dropped from 39.9 yards in 2017 to 37.4 in 2018 had something to something to do with it. It wasn’t Blake Gillkin’s best season.

Here’s how critical that drive-start position is:

In 2016, Penn State won the drive-start battle (owning a better average field position for that game) in nine out of 14 contests; in 2017, they won the drive-start battle in 11 out of 13 games; and in 2018, they were best in only 7 out of 12 games.

This shows you how and why Franklin’s field position mantra is so important:

Of the Nittany Lions’ eight losses over the past three seasons, they averaged a worse starting field position their than foes in seven games. (The outlier: Ohio State in 2017, a game Penn State should have won.)

Charles Huff was Penn State’s special teams coach from 2014-17, then left last offseason to go to Mississippi State. He was replaced in 2018 by Phil Galiano, who was a special teams intern with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 2016; Rutgers’ special teams coordinator in 2014; and a special teams assistant with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012-13, when he followed Greg Schiano from Rutgers to the Bucs.

Get a closer look at how Penn State fared in special teams in 2018 compared to previous years by checking out this chart below that tracks the Nittany Lions’ special teams results and national rankings over Franklin’s five seasons at Penn State:



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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