PSU focusing on special teams

| Friday, Aug. 15, 2008 recently ranked Penn State's special teams No. 1 in the Big Ten, which came as a mild surprise to oft-criticized Nittany Lions place-kicker Kevin Kelly.

"I would endorse it on this guy's part," Kelly said, pointing to punter Jeremy Boone, who was standing nearby.

Boone stepped in last year for 2006 Ray Guy Award finalist Jeremy Kapinos and performed flawlessly, helping Penn State lead the Big Ten -- third nationally -- in net punting with 39.43 yards per punt. Net punting is a punt's distance subtracted by the return.

"That's big," Boone said. "All we look at with coach (Larry) Johnson is net punt. That's the biggest thing."

Other aspects of Penn State's special teams play last season weren't as stellar.

The kickoff coverage ranked No. 116 of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) schools, allowing an average return of 26.36 yards.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno knows his team must do better.

"That's a legitimate criticism," he said. "Obviously, the Illinois game (in 2007), we go down the field offensively and have a great drive and look like we're going to take control of the game at their place. (We) kick off, and that kid runs the ball right down our throat for a touchdown."

That kid was Arrelious Benn, whose 90-yard kickoff return erased Penn State's 3-0 lead and helped the Illini to an eventual 27-20 win. It was the first kick return touchdown allowed by Penn State since 1994.

Special teams stats
Here's how Penn State's kickoff and punt teams performed last season:
Category Avg. Yds. National rank
Kickoff coverage 26.36 116
Punt coverage 5.35 10
Kickoff returns 21.02 64
Punt returns 10.03 40

Paterno also referenced his team's lone loss in 2005, when a late kickoff return by Steve Breaston helped set up Michigan for a game-winning touchdown drive.

Paterno thinks Penn State has made the mistake in recent seasons of not having enough front-line personnel on its coverage teams.

"We can't do that," he said. "I think we've got to do a little better job on personnel, and that obviously comes from me."

Penn State's return teams also weren't spectacular last season, ranking No. 64 nationally on kickoff returns and No. 40 on punt returns.

Kelly's field-goal conversion percentage of .769 (20 of 26) was sixth in the conference. But he often struggles with kicking from a long distance.

He made just 2-of-7 attempts from 40 yards or longer last season. In his career, the senior is only 9 of 24 from 40 yards or longer.

"I've talked to many people," Kelly said. "They've pointed out the same exact thing on my long field goals, that I was kind of rounding my approach, which is why I tend to pull the ball on the longer field goals. I've really worked on that and just trying to go smooth and slow and straight through the ball."

"I know I have the leg, and I know the hold and snap are going to be there. It's just a matter of me doing the same thing every time."

While Kelly is trying for significant improvement, Boone would be happy with marginal improvement.

"My goal last season was to have a 4.6 (second) hang time and hit it 40 yards," he said. "This year, I'm trying to get it to 4.7, 4.8 and 41 yards.

"I don't want to push it."

Boone, who's booted his way to a scholarship from his former status as a walk-on, also is working on pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line, and he will serve as a source of support for Kelly as his holder.

"If he sees me pressing a little bit or trying to overkick, he'll just tell me to calm down," Kelly said. "It's good to have him there, especially with him punting. He can see similarities with him and me sometimes, so he can relate better than maybe somebody else might."

Notes: Cornerback A.J. Wallace continues to miss practice with a hamstring pull. ... Reserve safety Nick Sukay (Greensburg Central Catholic) will have an MRI to determine the reason for continuing pain in his right foot, where he suffered a stress fracture last spring.

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