Penn State Midterm Grades: Special Teams

FightOnState.com breaks down the performance of the Nittany Lions though six games.

James Franklin Talks Punting

The Penn State football team is 4-2 and fresh off its second bye of the 2014 season. With 12 games on the slate (not including a now-possible bowl), by our math that would put James Franklin's team at the midway point of the campaign.

Which makes it the perfect time for our midterm grades. We'll handle this in “Take Your Marks” format, meaning FOS staffers Mark Brennan and Mark Harrington will handle the analysis and both will supply a grade for each area.

Our overall grade will be the average of the two. We conclude with the Nittany Lion special teams.

Sam Ficken

KICKING

Brennan: How cool has it been to see senior kicker Sam Ficken progress from disaster (early 2012) to inconsistent (late 2012-13) to rock solid? Some of the younger players struggling for Penn State this year (we'll get to punting soon enough) would be wise to follow Ficken's lead, because he confronted his problems and corrected them, and never bowed to intense criticism from fans or the media. In fact, Ficken never shied away from the press, even during the tough times. This year, he is 12 of 12 on field-goal attempts that have made it past the line of scrimmage, including the game-winner as time expired vs. UCF. There have been two blocks, one due to a protection lapse and one he admittedly hit too low. He is also perfect on extra points and has booted 15 of 31 kickoffs for touchbacks. On top of that, he has two solo tackles.

Brennan Grade: A-

Harrington: It's a great story to watch unfold. Ficken has become a reliable weapon for Penn State on field goals and has also become fairly consistent in the battle for field position with kickoffs. A nod also goes to the unsung guys who snap (Tyler Yazujian) and hold (Ryan Keiser) the ball, who have been just as consistent as Ficken.

Harrington Grade: A-

FOS Grade: A-

Chris Gulla

PUNTING

Brennan: This area was a disaster the past two seasons, and somehow it has gotten even worse this year. Penn State ranked 118th in the nation (out of 125 teams) in net punting with an average of 33.1 yards per attempt. Redshirt freshman Chris Gulla (37.3 yards per punt) is in his first year as the starter and, unfortunately, so far the stage has proved to be too big for him. There has been some good -- four punts of longer than 50 yards, eight of 24 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. But things have come unraveled at the worst possible times. In a field-position game at Michigan, for example, he had kicks of 26 and 29 yards in the second half. Are there any other answers? We have to imagine Australian import and true freshman Dan Pasquariello will be getting a long look in practice this week. He is averaging 42.3 yards per boot on three tries. But he got the start vs. Northwestern, and, after firing a 40-yard liner that was returned 42 yards on his first try, was promptly benched. It is a shame this area has been such a trouble spot this season, because with a strong defense a good punter would have a chance to keep PSU in just about every game. As noted earlier, the struggling young punters can take some solace in knowing Ficken had even more problems early in his career and survived them to eventually thrive.

Brennan Grade: F+

Harrington: The situation is so dire with short punts that PSU should probably consider more fourth down attempts inside the 45. Gulla is young, but he seems to have way too many balls going off the side of his foot resulting in ultra-short kicks. This certainly has been an Achilles' heel for the Nittany Lions, giving a huge boost to opponents with short-field situations. In turn, it's put tremendous pressure on the defense to dig in and try to stop short drives. The coaches need to find an answer, but I am not sure if they have one this year.

Harrington Grade: F

FOS Grade: F+

Grant Haley

RETURN GAME

Brennan: New special teams coach Charles Huff claimed to be bringing a new aggressive attitude to the return and coverage units at Penn State, but we haven't seen it. Fair catches have been the norm for veteran punt return man Jesse Della Valle (he has seven returns on the year, though he did pop one for 41 yards). That would not be a big issue if the Lions were aggressively going after blocks, but they have not done that. PSU has no punt blocks on the year and it is difficult to recall it even being close to any. Meanwhile, the kick return men are averaging 21.8 yards per try, which seems OK until you realize that touchbacks come out to the 25-yard line these days.

Brennan Grade: C-

Harrington: The return game doesn't look all that different from recent years with a conservative, low-risk approach. The kickoff return game had issues early on with young speedster Grant Haley struggling to know when to come out of the end zone. While he has explosive speed, there seems to be a disconnect between him and his blockers with consistent runs to the short side traffic.

Harrington Grade: C-

FOS Grade: C-

Punt Coverage

COVERAGE

Brennan: Penn State's punts have generally been so short that covering them has not been a problem. Opponents have only attempted five returns. The one that broke kind of big (NU's 42-yarder) was a low liner, so that was not on the coverage men. There have been some cracks on the kickoff coverage -- it is never good when your kicker has two tackles through six games. But Ficken has lent a hand there and the coverage team has displayed some great athleticism in overcoming mistakes, so the longest return against the Lions has been 44 yards. Not good. But not terrible, either.

Brennan Grade: B-

Harrington: The coverage hasn't been bad or good from my perspective. Again, a lot of this is probably tied to the weak punting we have seen and a decent amount of touchbacks. It would be interesting to see how the unit performs with some solid punts.

Harrington Grade: C+

FOS Grade: B-

Mike Gesicki (88) and the field goal block unit.

OVERALL

Brennan: Ficken's been really good. The punting has been really bad. Other than that? This has the look of a unit that is more concerned with playing it safe than really getting after it. That's a shame, because in a season when the offense is suffering through growing pains, aggressive playmaking by the special teams would be a terrific complement to the strong defense. Huff still has time to make good on his vow to bring a “nekton” mentality to the special teams. Up until now, though, the Lions have been playing more like guppies than sharks.

Brennan Grade: C-

Harrington: While we hear a lot about aggression and a “nekton mentality,” I haven't seen it yet. The unit seems to play it safe pretty consistently on returns. It has to find an answer on punts, or else the defense will continue to have a tall order to fill trying to defend short fields.

Harrington Grade: C-

FOS Grade: C-


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