Penn State position analysis: Special teams

Photos – local – MediaDay201701 406084474
Kicker Tyler Davis (95) speaks during Media Day at Penn State.

Spotlight on: Tyler Davis

Davis’ story is an incredible one, a soccer player who never competed in football until after his freshman year of college but changed over after he tried to transfer but his coach at Bradley would not release him. He learned how to kick a football, went to a few camps, sent out a bunch of videos to coaches, and attracted the interest of Penn State. Over his two seasons, he has kicked 30 field goals in 32 attempts, including a school-record 18 in a row. He went 62 for 62 on extra points in 2016. His goal this season is to stretch his range; his career long is just 42 yards, and his best last year was 40 yards, three times. The Illinois native also will likely take care of the kickoff duties with Joey Julius no longer on the team. His backup is redshirt freshman Alex Barbir.

A transformational punter

While Penn State was going through NCAA sanctions, it had to be more cautious with distributing scholarships, and punters didn’t get any for a few years. Blake Gillikin did get one after the Nittany Lions got their scholarships back and impressed from his very first game last season as a true freshman, pinning Kent State twice inside its own 20 and receiving a standing ovation both times. He went on to set a program record for a freshman by averaging 42.8 yards, driving 21 of his 61 punts inside the 20. The improvement in field position was a welcome one for the Penn State defense. He probably will add a job to his load this season, serving as the holder for Davis.

Working the returns

The Nittany Lions didn’t exactly dazzle in the return games last year, finishing 87th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in kickoff runbacks with a 19.7-yard average and 94th in punt returns at 6.5. Backup running back Miles Sanders returned a program-record 33 kickoffs last year and averaged 20.8 yards and is probably the No. 1 option entering the season. The punt-return plan is more uncertain. The Lions returned 30 punts last season and John Reid, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury, ran back 22 of them for a 7.5-yard average. Wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins, the team’s primary punt returner in 2015, might have the inside track to assume that role again.

Blanket coverage

The coverage teams did a better job last season than the return teams, ranking 28th in kickoff coverage and 54th in punt coverage. Some of the standouts are safety Ayron Monroe, wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Glassboro), cornerbacks Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, and safety Troy Apke. Fourth-year junior Kyle Vasey is the team’s new long snapper.