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Rich Scarcella | Reading Eagle | September 20, 2018

Penn State football: Lions look to improve on special teams

Despite electric returns by KJ Hamler and DeAndre Thompkins, Penn State football coach James Franklin said the Nittany Lions have been inconsistent in the kicking game.

Phil Galiano, the special teams coordinator, couldn't disagree.

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"There have been some really good things," Galiano said Wednesday, "and a couple disappointing things as well."

Penn State (3-0) ranks in the top three in the Big Ten in kickoff returns, punt returns, punting and PAT kicks going into its conference opener at Illinois (2-1) Friday night at 9 at Memorial Stadium.

The Lions, however, rank next-to-last in kickoff coverage and are the only Big Ten team to allow two successful onside kicks, against Appalachian State and Kent State.

"It's something we've been working hard on," Galiano said. "We're confident we're going to be able to get that fixed."

They've made progress in kickoff coverage. Appalachian State's Darrynton Evans returned Penn State's first kickoff of the season for a 100-yard touchdown, but the Lions did a much better job against Pittsburgh and Kent State.

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They've also limited opponents to just 6 yards on four punt returns. It helps that Penn State has Blake Gillikin as its punter for the third year. He's dropped five of his 12 punts inside the 20-yard line and is averaging 43.8 yards. He also controlled field position with his punts against Pitt.

"Blake is extremely special," Galiano said. "He's the best college punter I've ever worked with. You see his ability to kick a deep ball with hang time. He has the ability to put the ball where he wants. He has unbelievable hands, which allow him to catch the ball cleanly."

Gillikin dropped 26 of his 52 punts last season inside the 20, which was not a coincidence.

"Last year I really took a step in being able to pin teams deep," he said. "The offense got a lot better last year, and you kind of saw that with how my punts looked.

"The field position from where I punted kind of changed, so it caused me to adapt and change my practice routine and work on the end over end kick and try to pin people deep more."

Most Penn State fans, though, are buzzing about Hamler and Thompkins, who rank eighth in their respective categories in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Hamler is averaging 35.4 yards on kickoff returns; Thompkins is averaging 21.5 on punt returns.

"When you have a guy back there who your team believes in," Galiano said, "they fight harder and longer to make that extra effort because they know we can score."

Hamler made a spectacular debut against Appalachian State when he fielded a kickoff deep in the end zone late in regulation, hesitated and returned it 52 yards to set up Penn State's game-tying touchdown. He's averaging 24.7 yards on his 15 touches on offense and special teams.

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"He's super fast, and he's super quick," Galiano said. "He has the mindset that no one can stop him or tackle him. He is a great competitor. He's really dynamic in that role."

Thompkins led the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the nation in punt returns last season with a 13.3 average. He's already returned a punt for a touchdown against Pitt.

"Fearlessness and confidence are the only two qualities you need," Thompkins said. "Fearlessness, because you're going to catch the ball with guys trying to take your head off. Confidence, because every time you catch the ball you know you can return it (for a touchdown)."

Penn State has relied on freshmen as its placekicker (Jake Pinegar) and its kickoff specialist (Rafael Checa).

Pinegar has made 22-of-22 PATs and is 1-of-2 on field goals, missing from 45 yards in the wind and rain at Pittsburgh. He kicked a game-tying extra point in the final minute of regulation against Appalachian State in his first career game.

"He really showed some composure there," Gillikin said. "He hit it right down the middle. He's done that on every single extra point. He's been great other than the kick in the mud and rain in Pittsburgh. I'm really looking forward to him having a great year and a great career here."

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Ten of Checa's 24 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.

"He has a huge leg, one of the biggest I've ever seen," Gillikin said. "It's on display every Saturday. It's just the consistency factor. He has to eliminate one or two mishits a game. He'll be one of the best kickoff guys in the country the next four years." 

This article is written by Rich Scarcella from Reading Eagle, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.