One of the under-the-radar issues as Penn State navigated its way through the NCAA sanctions era was the impact the drastic scholarship reductions had on the Nittany Lions’ special teams.
The program did not have the numbers to spend scholarships on specialists. And the lack of overall team depth had a trickle-down effect that resulted in fewer top athletes being used on the coverage and return units.
So when Penn State finally got back to being allowed to have 85 scholarship players this year, it made sense that special teams would improve significantly. And that is exactly what happened.
Ironically, in what can best be described as a nod to the non-scholarship players who helped PSU’s special teams survive the sanctions era, two of the men up for our Player of the Year in this area are still walk-ons.
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The redshirt junior walk-on, a former soccer player at Bradley, is poised to blow away Brett Conway’s Penn State record for field goal accuracy in a season (83.3 percent). Davis has converted all 22 of his field goals that have made it past the line of scrimmage (he had two blocked), and is a perfect 55 of 55 on extra points. This included a 4-for-4 effort on field goals in horrible conditions at Rutgers.
Davis’ 40-yard field goal late in regulation against Minnesota forced the game into overtime. The Nittany Lions won that game and have not lost since. Oh yeah, and the Lions changed holder later in the season (and then changed back), and it did not impact Davis at all.
Penn State is once again in position to spend scholarships on specialists, and Gillikin paid immediate dividends during his true freshman season. He is averaging 42.1 yards per kick, making him PSU’s first full-time punter since 2011 (pre-sanctions) to average more than 40 yards. His average is the third-best in the Big Ten.
Gillikin also proved to be savvy for a rookie punter. With the Lions trailing 19-7 to No. 2 Ohio State at home, a snap sailed past Gillikin and into the end zone. He calmly ran back and kicked the pigskin out of the end zone, giving the Buckeyes a safety and a 21-7 lead. Penn State would rally to win the game, 24-21. But had OSU recovered that bad snap for a score, the upset likely would never have happened.
For the first time in the history of football, a kickoff specialist somehow got into the heads of opposing return teams. After making several hard tackles early in the season — both of which generated considerable social media attention — Julius drew unsportsmanlike conduct flags against Minnesota and Maryland (for late hits on him).
The redshirt sophomore has kicked off 93 times and had 45 touchbacks. Penn State’s net average on kickoffs is 41.1 yards, which ranks second in the Big Ten. Opponents are averaging 18.8 yards per return vs. Julius, down from the 24.8 yards the Lions allowed last season.
Julius did all of this despite missing time in the offseason while dealing with an eating disorder, a story he shared to help people having similar struggles.
With all due respect to special teams captain Von Walker, this year the redshirt freshman Monroe emerged as the Nittany Lions’ most dynamic threat on the coverage units despite missing the first four games with an injury. In nine games, Monroe finished with 11 tackles. All were on special teams, with 10 coming on kickoff coverage.
Think of this a different way. In the nine games in which Monroe was available, opponents had a total of 37 kickoff returns vs. Penn State. Monroe had tackles on more than a quarter of them. Only one of his tackles on kickoffs was outside of the opposing 25-yard line.