Nick Scott has plenty of descriptions for what makes a good special-teams player at Penn State, words such as “want-to” and “buy-in” and “maturity” and “understanding that special teams can influence a game just as much as offense or defense.”
But the ultimate definition on special teams for Scott: “It’s for savages.”
“You’ve got to be tough,” he said. “You’ve got to have high energy or you’ll get your butt kicked out there. I just try to take a high-octane approach to it every day.”
Scott, a 5-foot-11, 199-pounder and a redshirt junior cocaptain, has had multiple roles with the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions – from reserve running back to kickoff returner to his current role as the backup free safety. But he is best known for his coverage skills on kickoffs and punts, flying downfield to be the first to hit the ball carrier.
Scott’s hustle paid off last Saturday against Indiana when he scooped up a fumble by Indiana punt returner J-Shun Harris and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.
Scott said every member of the coverage units takes pride in getting down the field, especially on kickoffs, where special teams coordinator Charles Huff expects everyone to run through the end zone even if the kick results in a touchback.
“That actually started with me and (linebacker Koa Farmer) my redshirt freshman year when we would race to the end zone and see who could get there first,” Scott said. “What that does is, whether or not the kick is returned, it sort of forces you to be going full-speed the whole time, especially if you’re trying to win. That’s why we’re able to play so fast and get guys down inside the 20.”
The Lions rank in the top 15 of FBS this week in three special-teams categories: punt coverage, punt returns and kickoff returns. Scott said that phase of the game is something Huff and head coach James Franklin have emphasized since they arrived in Happy Valley in 2014.
“Guys have been hearing the same message for four years about how important it is,” said Scott, who is from Fairfax, Va. “At the start of the season, and a little bit last year, we’re starting to reap the benefits of how much time we put into special teams, and our technique and things like that, which is why we’re able to be successful in that phase of the game.
“We’re Penn State. We have great athletes here. That definitely helps with our efficiency on special teams. But I’d say, first and foremost, it’s really just the buy-in and the message and guys holding true to that message.”
After sitting out his first year, Scott rushed 30 times for 133 yards, caught four passes and completed two passes – one for a touchdown – as a redshirt freshman. Since he had played at least six positions in high school, he didn’t mind moving over from running back to the defensive backfield in the spring of 2016.
But he did enjoy running with the football after his fumble recovery Saturday and scoring a touchdown, just the second of his Penn State career.
“It was nice to be in the end zone again,” he said. “It was like seeing an old friend.”