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Penn State Football: Special Teams Gets Overhaul When It Comes To Details

by on June 12, 2019 4:10 PM

Penn State special teams coordinator Joe Lorig loves fly-fishing.

And it makes sense. Fly-fishing is a game of details: a flick of the wrist, elbow control, the weather, the right number of false casts, a well tied knot and of course, the right fly.

Who better to love a game of details than a football coach?

Lorig enters the midway point of June already three-games deep into the season's scouting report. He won't go farther into the schedule than that, by the time Week 4 rolls around there will be enough film from the current season, but for now it's gearing up Idaho, Buffalo and Pitt. He watches film, taking notes in his mind as much as on paper.

In reality, though, Lorig knows that the biggest challenge Penn State faces isn't the team across the field but the one in front of him. His charge: improving a unit that struggled across the board in 2018. The Nittany Lions sent six kickoffs out of bounds last year, one shy of the national lead. Punting was up and down, field goals were good and bad. If there was an area that you could make a mistake, Penn State probably did it at least once. It's hard to say that Penn State absolutely lost games because of it, but it certainly didn't help the cause.

"Number one we have to address kicker," Lorig said on Wednesday. "Our kickoff situation was poor, I don't think that's a mystery to anyone. Six kicks were out of bounds, that's just unacceptable at Penn State. I think we've addressed that. That's the thing that really stood out to me. Field goal, we've got to be better at that but I think some of that is having a freshman. I think you're going to see improvement there.

"What I care about is moving forward."

The good news for Lorig is that nothing breeds a hunger for success like being a part of failure. He won't have to do much in the way of selling players on the idea that he has the answers, let alone the idea that they need to improve.

If anything, Lorig has the potential for the easiest introductory season of the new faces on James Franklin's staff. It's hard to imagine Penn State's special teams unit struggling more than it did in 2018, and nothing would you lead you to believe Lorig doesn't have practical solutions to improving the state of things.

Even so, he, and every special teams coach in America, still has to sell the importance of the unit as a whole. It's easy to map out how you want your unit to play, harder to get players to buy into what it takes to do that.

"You can have guys that don't buy-in," Lorig said. "Nobody goes to Penn State to be the right guard on punt. They don't do that. So how do you as a staff, as a program and as a coach, motivate a Micah Parsons, a Jesse Luketa, I can name anyone, how do you motivate them to be a great right guard on punt? Because nobody came here to do that. Nobody came here to be the center on kickoff returns. It's my job and our staff's job to make guys want to be the center, and the other places I've been it was a fight to be the center because they knew it mattered."

Enter the details, and a simple idea that if special teams are important, then you should treat them like any other phase of the game.

And that's maybe the biggest change inside the Lasch Building that doesn't include the construction workers. Special teams meetings, not as the whole unit, but as specific positions. A brilliant idea, but one Lorig can't pretend he had on his own.

"It was Todd Graham at Arizona State who I worked for," Lorig said. "He's a really smart guy and he asked me 'Why are you meeting with [the entire special team unit] all the time?' And I gave him the standard answer and he said, 'Well that's dumb.'

"And I asked him, 'well what do you think coach?' And he goes 'Well you were a defensive coordinator, did you meet with [the entire defense] every day?' And I said no, 'I meet with them on Sunday, Thursday and Saturday."

"And he goes 'Yeah, because the position players (defensive line, linebackers, corners, safeties) need to hear things on the other days, why the hell don't you do that on special teams?' And the next week we did it because he was the head coach and it's awesome. It's so obvious that I don't know why I didn't do it before."

Why doesn't that happen more often though? The idea of breaking down a complex unit into its parts and meeting with specific position groups, drilling the details in a film room is a large part of the reason football buildings exist in the first place. If it's such a good idea, why isn't everyone else doing it? Lorig says the Philadelphia Eagles are the only other one he has seen do it this way, kicker Jake Elliot a product of Lorig's time at Memphis.

He has a few ideas of why that might be, things that Penn State can pull off that maybe other places can't. It's not about talent, not about coaching, it's about resources, and space.

"A lot of times what it is, a special teams coordinator is going to be held accountable for everything and not want another coach to coach it because it's going to be on the coach if it goes wrong," Lorig said. "I don't feel that way, but that's sometimes why it's not done. And the other thing is you have to have someone organize it all. It takes massive amounts of time. It's 10 hours a day to organize.

"For example, if you go in to watch punt, it's just your position, you're not watching everyone else. So you have to have someone cut up video and then you've got to have meeting spaces where it works. Because you're going to transition from punt to kickoff return and you've only got 15 minutes to do both so you can't have a position room over here and another one 200 yards away. You need all of those pieces to make it work and it does work here very well."

The result is an entire ecosystem where special teams is flexing its importances inside of Lacsh nearly as much as anything else. All of the little details and the big ones under the microscope.

And eventually, all things merge into one, and a river -- or maybe just a Hamler -- runs through it. 



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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