Penn State’s kick return game appeared to take a step forward in 2015, improving slightly over the 2014 season. But there is still plenty of room for the unit to get better, especially when considering the athletic talent that is, well, returning for the Nittany Lions.
To review, PSU ranked fifth in the Big Ten in kickoff return average at 21.9 yards per attempt in ’15, which seems solid … until you take a closer look at those numbers.
• In conference games, that averaged dropped two full yards, to 19.9 yards per attempt, which ranked eighth in the league.
• State’s longest return of the year, a 58-yarder, came against Buffalo.
• PSU has not had a kickoff return of longer than 58 yards since Chaz Powell had a 92-yarder vs. Purdue on Oct. 15, 2011. He did not score on the play.
• Penn State has not had a kickoff return for a TD since Powell had a 95-yarder vs. Indiana State to open the 2011 season.
• And before you go and chalk all of that up to a reduction of talent stemming from the NCAA sanctions that were imposed in 2012, consider that the Lions have not had a kickoff return for TD vs. an FBS opponent since Derrick Williams had a 94-yarder against Illinois Sept. 27 of … 2008.
Will that change this year? These are the three men that are battling it out in the spring to try to make it happen.
SIZE: 6-1, 233
2015: 18 attempts for 405 yards (22.5 per return); long of 57 (vs. Illinois); 1 fumble (lost vs. Michigan State)
LOWDOWN: The former high school running back appeared to be the answer here when he looked strong in the 2015 opener vs. Temple, returning his first attempt 35 yards and finishing with five returns for 128 yards. But he was also involved in a nasty collision on one of the tries — a play where he appeared to give as good as he got — and that was pretty much that.
Farmer was held out of the next game with an undisclosed injury and did not get back into the serious swing of things on kick returns until the last four games of the regular season. His final try came late in the blowout loss to Michigan State, when he fumbled and the Spartans recovered deep in PSU territory to set up an easy (and meaningless) touchdown.
The redshirt sophomore has the sort of size and speed that make him an ideal fit here. Further, for the time being he does not project as a starter at safety, so this would be a great way to allow one of the team’s best athletes to make an impact. We’ll give him a pass on the one fumble vs. MSU, and note that the biggest issue for Farmer would seem to be staying healthy.
SIZE: 5-9, 167
2015: 10 attempts for 209 yards (20.9 per return); long of 33 (vs. Georgia); no fumbles.
LOWDOWN: The staff gave Polk a try in the middle of the season and in the bowl. But as quick as he was, this just did not seem to be his thing. He never seemed comfortable taking the ball straight up the middle of the field.
Further, as effective a weapon as he can be for the offense and as a punt-return man, does it make any sense putting one of the smallest men on the team in what is arguably the most dangerous role on the team?
We may be wrong here, but we’re thinking Polk is a fallback plan here. On to the next candidate.
SIZE: 5-11, 195
2015: 13 attempts for 310 yards (23.8 per return), long of 58 (vs. Buffalo); 1 fumble (lost vs. Maryland).
LOWDOWN: While carrying the ball, Scott looked to be the most comfortable member of this trio last year. He was right at home running with power through the chaos in the middle of the field. He took over when Farmer appeared to be bumped up early in the year and wasted no time busting the 58-yarder in Week 2 vs. Buffalo.
The issues? Well, he’d sometimes hesitate when it came to making decisions on returning or not returning (and catching it or letting it go through the end zone). And he did not seem to have that extra gear and/or ability to juke to make the last man miss. Finally, he nearly had the mother of all lost fumbles when he coughed up the ball in the fourth quarter at Maryland with PSU leading 31-30. The defense bailed him out by forcing and recovering a fumble on the very next snap (and Scott did not return another kick the rest of the season).
All of that said, even now that he has been moved from running back to corner, he is a natural ball-carrier with good hands and decent speed who is extremely tough. And we think he’s more than paid his penance for the Maryland fumble.
If we were picking — and clearly we are not — are order here would be Farmer, Scott, Polk.