IN FOCUS: Happy Returns

Get a closer look at PSU's kick-return game and how the candidates are fairing as they battle for the opportunity to take back kicks.

Last week FOS gave you an in-depth view of Penn State football's kicking situation. Now we look at how the special teams return game is fairing in preseason practice.

Kick Returns

Two veterans and two youngsters are vying for the opportunity to return kickoffs for the Nittany Lions. On the veteran side of this are former wide receiver/current defensive back Chaz Powell and running back Stephfon Green. Powell had 16 returns 371 yards (23.2-yard average) last season and Green had four for 102 yards (25.5 average).

"Steph and Chaz are both fast and see the gaps well," one observer said. "They are seeing reps as the fall-back guys."

However, the coaches are said to be looking at two younger players to see if they are comfortable in the role. Both have seen more work than the veterans in the preseason.

The first is Devon Smith. Smith is certainly no stranger to returns, having carried five kicks 91 yards last year. According to one observer, "He's so explosive and gets to his top gear so quickly, which is incredibly useful, although it can hurt if your blockers don't get out to open lanes fast enough."

Smith has the speed, but his "smaller size" (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) still has the staff a bit concerned with his durability and ability to hold onto the ball when taking a big hit. "Getting taken down by a [corner] when he's on your hip is one thing, but when you have 10 guys head-hunting at full speed, the hits tend to be a lot bigger," one observer said. Although not everyone is concerned. "He's a blazer, put him out there and unleash him," another observer explained.

The other is true freshman Silas Redd. The coaches "are intrigued" by the combination of strength and speed he carries. At 5-10, 200 pounds, he's "not huge by any stretch," but observers point to his physique and power along with "a strong burst." He initially focused on reading his blocks, but "has had some good returns and some lapses." Redd sustained a sprained MCL late in preseason camp but should be back in time for the regular season.

Punt Returns

On the punt return side of things, there are three main candidates working returns this preseason. First, Smith is getting work here. "He's more comfortable on kicks right now, but it's because he has a longer runway to work with," an observer said.

Drew Astorino has also seen return reps. "Drew has a level head and has great fundamentals, but I don't think he's a home-run threat," an observer said. "He can certainly be the punt possession guy, though, which Vandy [Ron Vanderlinden, PSU's punt return coach] seems to like." Incidentally, Astorino led all punt returners last season with 7.9 yards per return and 55 total yards on seven returns. Not exactly eye-popping numbers for a team leader.

Finally, WR Justin Brown "looks like a (return) weapon" according to one observer. Last season he grabbed seven punts for 41 yards (5.1 average), but "he's got size and is quick, so he can find a hole and is tough to take down." As another observer added, "Plus, he has one of the best sets of hands on the team."

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