When Penn State received a verbal commitment from Georgia kicker Alex Barbir late last month it ensured that the Nittany Lions would be landing a scholarship kicker AND punter in its Class of 2016.
Punter/kickoff specialist Blake Gillikin, another Peachtree State prospect, committed to James Franklin and company last June. Both signed Wednesday.
NCAA-imposed scholarship limitations stemming from the Sandusky scandal have prevented Penn State from landing a scholarship specialist in the last four recruiting classes. But now that those limitations have been lifted, and Franklin is working with a full complement of scholarships, kicker and punter are once again in play.
How much of an impact can scholarship specialists make on a program? To give you an idea, we went back a decade and a half, and charted all of the kickers and punters who signed with the Nittany Lions.
2011: K Sam Ficken
Ficken was an unranked, two-star prospect when he committed to Penn State less than a month before Signing Day in 2011. It seemed odd on several fronts.
First, Ficken was a virtual unknown. No other major-college program had offered him a scholarship, and PSU did so very late in the process (he quickly committed).
Second, the Lions had limited scholarship spots in their Class of 2011. It ended up consisting of only 16 members.
Third, there was already a scholarship kicker on the roster (see below), and he had three years of eligibility remaining.
As it turned out, however, Ficken was a godsend, even if it took a while for everyone to realize it. He spent his first year as a backup, and figured to do the same in 2012 before NCAA sanctions hit and returning starter Anthony Fera decided to transfer to Texas.
Ficken became the starter by default, and clearly was not ready for the challenge. His struggles in 2012, which included missing four field goals and an extra point in a one-point loss at Virginia, have been beaten to death.
But only because his transformation after that was so amazing. Ficken went on to finish second all-time at Penn State in field goals made (54) and hit on a higher percentage of his attempts (72) than such notables as Robbie Gould (63.9), Matt Bahr (63.9), Chris Bahr (55.6) and Craig Fayak (62.5).
He also set a school record for consecutive field goals made (15).
As a senior, he made last-second, game-winning field goals vs. UCF in Ireland and vs. Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. The latter was a career walk-off, so to speak.
Ficken was unable to make an NFL roster in 2015, which we still don’t quite understand.
Nevertheless, this was obviously great value for the scholarship spent.
2009: K/P Anthony Fera
Though he hailed from Texas at the time, Fera had family roots in Pennsylvania. So it was not all that surprising when the nation’s No. 2 kicker (and a highly touted punter, as well) signed with the Nittany Lions.
Fera redshirted in 2009 and served as the starting punter and kickoff specialist in 2010. That second season was cut short when he had to undergo an emergency appendectomy (this was back in the day when PSU talked about medical issues).
A second underage drinking incident in 2011 looked like it might waylay his redshirt sophomore season, but after a one-game suspension he eventually emerged as State’s starting kicker, punter and kickoff specialist. He excelled in all areas, winning second-team All-Big Ten notice as a kicker and punter.
Penn State seemed set for the following two seasons. But … when NCAA sanctions hit in July of 2012 and players were given the chance to transfer without penalty, Fera bolted for Texas. He said part of the reason was so he could be closer to his mom, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Fera had two outstanding seasons at Texas, making a school-record 15 straight field goals at one point. He won All-America honors in 2013 and was a finalist for the Groza Award.
It is kind of surprising the strong-legged Fera never found a job in the NFL.
When it comes to value from a scholarship spent on a kicker, it is difficult to argue with Penn State’s decision here. Because at the time, nobody could have foreseen the circumstances under which he would leave the program.
2007: P Ryan Breen
People were scratching their heads when Penn State offered a scholarship to Breen, the nation’s 12th-ranked punter. He held a two-star ranking and no other major-college offers.
But Breen never had a chance to prove the naysayers wrong, as he found himself stuck behind walk-on turned All-Big Ten punter Jeremy Boone for three years, with his only kick in that span a 43-yarder in 2009.
Breen appeared to be a lock to replace the graduated Boone in 2010, but that spring he abruptly left the program and university. At the time, sources told FOS Breen was unhappy at Penn State.
Regardless, he has never been heard from again. OK, we’re kidding about that last part, as Breen is now working for a real estate company in his home state of Michigan.
In terms of getting value from a scholarship spent on a specialist, this obviously did not work out so well for PSU.
2005: K Kevin Kelly
People were scratching their heads when Penn State offered a scholarship to Kelly, the nation’s 19th-ranked kicker and a two-star prospect according to Scout.com. Unlike Breen, this is a situation where a poorly rated prospect proved the doubter wrong.
One need only look at the Penn State media guide for that.
Kelly smashed PSU’s career scoring mark in three seasons. And by the time his fourth season was complete, he had set a standard that appears to be unbreakable. Consider that Kelly has 425 points. No. 2 on the list is Craig Fayak, with 282.
He also holds marks for career field goals (78) and career extra points (193), and set an NCAA record with field goals in 31 straight games.
Beyond scoring via the kick, Kelly also had a rushing touchdown and a rushing two-point conversion.
He was a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2008, and at the time his career ended he was the conference’s all-time scoring leader.
Oddly enough, things never panned out for Kelly at the next level, either.
For Penn State, though, he provided tremendous value for the scholarship spent.
2002: P Jeremy Kapinos
The left-footed Virginia native was the nation’s No. 1 punter and a four-star prospect when he signed with Penn State in 2002. After redshirting that year, he unleashed his leg on opponents for the next four seasons.
Kapinos still holds Penn State career records for punts (251) and punting yardage (10,476). And he was remarkably consistent. His season averages, starting with 2003, were 41.9, 41.8, 41.3 and 41.9.
Kapinos had two punts blocked as a redshirt freshman. He got off the final 184 punts of his career without another being snuffed out.
He went on to spend parts of six seasons in the NFL, playing with four different teams. His best year overall was 2009, when he played in 16 games for Green Bay and averaged 43.8 yards on 66 kicks.
But he also was a late injury replacement for Pittsburgh in 2010-11, and ended up punting for the Steelers in their Super Bowl loss to the Packers. He set a Super Bowl record by averaging 51 yards on three punts.
Kapinos remains the only former Penn State punter to kick in the NFL since the 1987 season.
Obviously, another scholarship well spent by the Nittany Lions.