When talking about special teams at the start of spring practice, Penn State coach James Franklin said that in 2015, “we actually improved in the return game.”
And he was kind of right. Last fall, PSU’s average kickoff return was up exactly one yard from the previous season. You can read about that right here.
The punt-return game, meanwhile, appeared to make modest strides, too. The Lions averaged 7.1 yards per attempt in ’15, which ranked only 12th in the Big Ten but was in fact up .3 yards per try from 2014.
But closer inspection of the punt return game indicates that Franklin was fooling himself if he really thought there was worthwhile improvement on the punt return team. In Big Ten games only, PSU ranked 13th in the conference at 4.4 yards per attempt.
It gets worse.
In the final seven games of the season — a stretch during which the Lions went 2-5 — they had nine punt returns for a total of 23 yards (2.6 yards per attempt). During that same span, their opponents had 14 attempts for 94 yards.
That sort of disparity can be a killer in the battle for field position.
How to go about improving it? Well, special teams coach Charles Huff spent part of the offseason talking shop with multiple NFL and college special teams coaches to improve all areas of his unit. That obviously includes the punt-return team.
But some of the weight will be carried by the Lions fighting it out for the lead job returning punts. These are the men and what they bring to the table.
SIZE: 5-11, 192
2015: 23 returns for 178 yards (7.7 yards per return).
LOWDOWN: Thompkins was the backup to Mark Allen here last season until the second quarter of the Week 2 win over Buffalo. Offsetting penalties wiped out a Bulls’ punt and Allen’s 11-yard return, so the Lions put Thompkins and his fresh legs in for the re-kick. On his first career return, the redshirt freshman bolted through a hole in the middle of the field and veered toward the right sideline. Somehow, punter Tyler Grassman tackled him near the sideline 58 yards later. Thompkins handled the job for most of the rest of the season.
Thompkins has terrific speed and has no qualms running through traffic. He’ll be used on offense, but does not figure to be a primary go-to guy, so this would be an excellent way to get the most out of his athletic ability.
But there were a few issues last year, things that prevented him from ever duplicating the success he had vs. Buffalo (and things he must address if he hopes to regain the job).
The first is holding onto the pigskin. Thompkins fumbled on three returns last season, losing all three, and the final miscue (vs. Michigan) gave the Wolverines a short field to score what turned out to be the game-winning TD and resulted in Thompkins losing the job (more on this later).
The second is judging when to catch and run, when to fair catch and when to let the ball go into the end zone. And finally, he’s got to be better at making people miss (case in point: being tackled by the punter vs. Buffalo).
The thought here is that if he can significantly improve his ball security (he had a team-high four fumbles — all lost — on just 31 total touches last year), Thompkins has an excellent chance of reclaiming the job.
SIZE: 5-10, 161
2015: 2 returns for 9 yards (4.5 yards per return).
LOWDOWN: The sure-handed “Pook,” as he is known in the program, took over for Thompkins after the lost fumble vs. Michigan and proved what everyone already knew — that he had good hands. Against Michigan, Michigan State and Georgia, Garrity fielded nine punts, and all of them were clean. But seven of them were fair catches.
Franklin is always talking up Garrity, and with good reason. Despite being undersized, he has earned the respect of teammates with his work ethic, toughness, great hands and always-improving athletic ability. In the winter, he posted a team-best 37-inch vertical.
But as well as the redshirt junior may play in practice, we have yet to see it translate over to a game situation — outside of all of those clean fair catches. He may prove us wrong, but this seems to be a low-risk, low-reward option.
SIZE: 5-9, 161
2015: Did not return any punts.
LOWDOWN: Polk saw limited action as a kickoff return man last season (10 attempts for 209 yards with a long of 33), but never seemed comfortable in that role. We believe there are bigger and better options there, and that Polk would be a more natural fit as a punt return man.
When it comes to speed and quickness, Polk is very much like Thompkins. In fact, as slot receivers last season, they were pretty much interchangeable, running many of the same styles of plays.
The main differences? Thompkins is bigger and would figure to be able to absorb more punishment.
However, when you compare total touches last year — Thompkins had 31, Polk 34 — another number comes into play. Fumbles. As noted earlier, Thompkins had four lost fumbles last season. Polk had none.
So when it comes to sheer speed and ball security, Polk may well offer the best of both worlds.