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Penn State aims to improve special teams under new coach

| Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 8:30 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State kicker Sam Ficken reacts after missing a 37-yard field goal in overtime against Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in University Park.

UNIVERSITY PARK — James Franklin did not mince words when discussing special teams at his introductory news conference in January.

“A lot of coaches talk about how important special teams are, but you look at the emphasis they put on it, and it's more lip service,” Franklin said. “We are committed to being great on special teams.”

That commitment by Franklin and special teams coordinator Charles Huff will be to revamp a special teams attack that was largely stagnant in 2013. The Nittany Lions averaged 8.0 yards per punt return, 63rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision. A Geno Lewis-led kick return game finished with the 100th-best average in the FBS.

Franklin has yet to see any of his potential special teams game-changers in game action, but his track record shows a willingness to mix key skill position contributors with speedy young players.

In 2013, Franklin's final season at Vanderbilt, the Commodores featured No. 2 wide receiver Jonathan Krause as the primary punt returner, and speedy true freshman defensive back Darrius Sims was the team's No. 1 kick returner. On Monday, Huff and Franklin mentioned the speed of Penn State's incoming freshmen but also brought up the potential of last year's No. 3 running back, Akeel Lynch, in the return game.

“You'd love for your third running back to be that guy, just from a numbers standpoint, so that he's constantly getting reps,” Huff said.

Fifth-year senior Jesse Della Valle was the Nittany Lions' leading punt returner in 2013, but Huff said he expects there to be open competition for that role. He also said the team won't shy away from using starters, including linebacker Mike Hull, to fill the special teams squad. Huff joked that quarterback Christian Hackenburg would play gunner during the team's first training camp workout Monday.

“A lot of times, because of the nature of special teams, that's an area where a walk-on will have an opportunity to get more reps sooner,” Huff said. “But the best guy is going to play. I'm looking for the fastest, strongest guy. If you find him, you call me, please.”

Out of 123 teams in the FBS, Penn State ranked No. 107 in the FBS in kickoff return defense and was one of eight teams to allow two or more kick return touchdowns last season. If last year's performance by a rather green kick coverage unit is any indication, starters and more experienced tacklers may need to answer the call for the Nittany Lions' special teams.

“Last year, we were playing a lot of young, inexperienced guys, and through that they gained a lot of experience,” senior kicker Sam Ficken said.

“I think we'll be greatly improved in all our special teams.”

Andrew Erickson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at aerickson@tribweb.com.

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