Without question, there have been a lot of positive things happening at Penn State since Bill O’Brien took over as head coach before last season. However, if there’s been one area of concern over the past two seasons, it’s special teams. There could be several factors contributing to this. The question remains unanswered: is it coaching or lack of talent due to scholarship reductions?
Dating back to last season, the Nittany Lions have had problems in all facets of special teams. Kicker Sam Ficken began the year missing several field goals. Perhaps the best example of that was a Week 2 visit to Virginia in which the Nittany Lions lost by one point. Ficken missed four field goals and had an extra point blocked in that game.
Another area that had problems last season was the kick return game. The Nittany Lions had trouble finding the right returner, even using linebacker Gerald Hodges at times.
This year, things have continued to go wrong on special teams. Ficken seemed to be more reliable, but struggled in the home-finale against Nebraska, missing a field goal in overtime and an extra point in a three-point loss. Aside from just Ficken, punter Alex Butterworth ranks near the bottom of the conference in punt yardage. Against Nebraska, Butterworth had to handle three bad snaps, one caused the punt to be blocked.
Penn State also ranks near the bottom of the conference in kick coverage. The Nittany Lions have given up kick return touchdowns in each of the last two games.
With all of the struggles on special teams, some are quick to point fingers at the coaches. There seems to be a lack of discipline on the coverage team with players not staying in their lanes. Coaching is a part of it and something that O’Brien will definitely take a look at during the off-season. However, coaching aside, there also has to be execution from the players being put out there.
When looking at Penn State’s kick coverage team, the argument could be made that the scholarship reductions is the biggest reason for the issues. With just 65 scholarships, the Nittany Lions are forced to use run-ons in positions that would normally be filled by more talented players on scholarship.
That’s a fair argument, but scholarships can’t be the crutch that’s used to explain anytime there are struggles. Plus, lack of scholarships doesn’t explain last year’s struggles since the reductions had not yet started.
The complete answer is unclear. I attribute it to some sort of combination of coaching, players not doing their jobs and a lack of talent on the roster to spread to special teams. Whatever the issues is, the coaching staff has another off-season to figure it out. Hopefully fans will see an improvement on special teams next season.
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