The Nittany Lions have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011, when Chaz Powell did it against FCS foe Indiana State. The team has not had a true punt return (we're not counting blocks) for a score since Derrick Williams took one to the house at Wisconsin in 2008.
Under Bill O'Brien in 2013, Penn State finished last in the Big Ten in kickoff-return average and eighth in punt-return average. In 2012, the Lions were last in the league in kickoff returns and ninth in punt returns.
Will any of that change under new coach James Franklin and his staff?
Well, with Franklin as the head coach at Vanderbilt last season, the Commodores finished next to last in the SEC in kickoff-return average and 11th (out of 14 teams) in punt-return average.
All of that being said, the key to improvement in these areas probably will have more to do with personnel than scheme. At a recent open practice, we were able to check out the men who were working in the return games.
Here is a look at them.
As a sophomore in 2012, Belton had a team-high nine kickoff returns for 150 yards (15.6 per). Last fall, he returned four kicks for 75 yards (18.8 per). He is good at finding holes. But does he have the top-end speed needed to excel in this area?
The redshirt sophomore has the breakaway speed to be a threat in the return game. To this point of his career, though, he has only one return (for eight yards) on his resume. The key for Lynch is consistently fielding the ball cleanly.
Penn State's leading rusher the past two seasons, the senior has good speed for his size (6-foot-1, 233 pounds). But he has never returned a kick in his PSU career. Given his occasional fumbling issues, he seems to be an odd inclusion here.
A 4.5-second (hand-timed) 40 guy, the senior DB is more than fast enough to handle this role. As a rookie in 2011, he had eight returns for 163 yards (20.4 per). He had four returns for 73 yards (18.2 per) as a sophomore.
The walk-on senior defensive back played in only two games last season and did not register any stats. We view him as a long shot to make an impact here.
Redshirt sophomore WR Geno Lewis, who led Penn State with 22 returns for 491 yards (a solid 22.3 per) last season, was not working with the kickoff return men while we were at practice.
Jesse Della Valle
Penn State's primary punt return man the past two seasons, the senior is known for having sure hands but not game-breaking speed. He averaged 7.6 yards per return in 2012 and 8.7 in 2013, with a career long of 31 yards. He has yet to score on a return. Della Valle also averaged 25.2 yards on six kickoff returns in 2012.
The diminutive sophomore WR (5-9, 153) had one return last year (for nine yards). His hands are said to be among the best on the team, and he impressed coaches and fellow players on the scout team last season. However, his lack of size raises obvious questions about his durability.
Another sophomore WR with good hands, Anderson did not return any kicks last season. But he did have 13 catches for 111 yards.
The true freshman early enrollee is the fastest player on the team. That speed, along with his instinctive running style, could make him the sort of game-breaker that has been missing from the punt return game since Williams handled the job.
The junior cornerback has yet to return a punt or kickoff in his Penn State career. But he had three interceptions last season, returning them for a total of 37 yards (12.3 yards per pick). He is likely being prepared to be used as a deep man when PSU is in its punt-safe formation in fourth-and-short situations.