STATE COLLEGE — The horn sounded to start a new series of drills. Leading his first official practice as Penn State’s coach, James Franklin headed right for his return men.
Special teams has rarely been a point of emphasis for the Nittany Lions during the limited time allowed during spring ball.
That’s about to change.
From all indications, Penn State is willing to live a bit more dangerously on special teams this season.
In 2013 especially, the special teams units were comprised heavily of walk-ons and freshmen. The shorthanded Lions weren’t willing to risk injury to most regulars by assigning them to block and tackle on returns.
“Probably as excited about special teams as any area on the team,” Franklin said. “Because if you look at us statistically the last year or so, it’s the area for most improvement, I think. It’s the area that we can make the biggest impact, and we’re committed to playing the best players on special teams.
“I think it’s a little bit (because of the) philosophy in the past, and I think that dealt with the sanctions and things like that. That was a way they were going to try to solve it with the sanctions. I don’t believe in that. I believe we’re going to play our best players.”
An area for improvement, indeed. Penn State is coming off a year in which it ranked 63rd in punt returns, 100th in kick returns and 107th in kick return defense, with that latter number including touchdowns surrendered to Purdue and Nebraska in November.
To that end, the Lions have an assistant with the formal title of special teams coordinator for the first time in nearly 20 years — Charles Huff, who will also coach running backs.
“I think a lot of times coaches give special teams lip service,” Franklin said. “I’m not saying that’s what’s happened here in the past, but I believe you’re going to play your best players in all three areas.
“Now we can’t have a guy starting on offense or defense and start on all four units on special teams either. You’ve got to have an understanding of that as well. … But hands-on experience is going to be the most important thing that we have.”
One player who might be able to improve the return game in a hurry just had his first Penn State practice Monday.
True freshman early enrollee De’Andre Thompkins has already been dubbed “the fastest guy on the team” by Franklin, who had him working with the kick returners right from the start.
Penn State timed every player in the 40 earlier this month. Thompkins was right at the top of the list, though Franklin wouldn’t divulge an exact time other than “fast, yeah, very fast.”
“It’s to the same philosophy I said before,” Franklin said. “Special teams is just as important as offense and defense. If a guy can help us in that area, he’s going to play.”
Franklin has already made it clear that injury updates will be non-existent under his regime.
That apparently applies to spring practice as well. Franklin declined to provide any information about players who might be limited during spring ball because of injuries.
“I don’t think that’s fair to the kids. I don’t think that’s fair to the program,” Franklin said, explaining his reasoning. “I don’t see how that gives us any advantage, and I know (UCF coach George O’Leary, Penn State’s opening opponent) is listening to this press conference right now to try to get any advantage he can. So we won’t talk about any of those types of things.”
A quick scan of Holuba Hall during the opening practice, however, revealed some lingering issues.
Linebacker Ben Kline missed last spring to recover from shoulder surgery, and this offseason wasn’t any easier. Kline was scheduled to have two operations this winter — one to repair a torn pectoral that ended his 2013 campaign early and another on his shoulder, which continued to bother him in 2013.
Kline was suited up in a helmet and shorts like the rest of his teammates on Monday but stood off to the side during drills that involved the upper body.
A pair of redshirt freshmen, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and cornerback Kasey Gaines, both wore protection on their left arms. Gaines wore a splint while Hamilton’s wrist remained heavily padded as he continues to recover from the surgery that sidelined him for his entire first season on campus.
Hamilton ran routes and participated in drills but was unable to catch passes.
On the positive spectrum, two players who missed all of the 2013 season because of injury both appeared to participate fully. Senior defensive end Brad Bars (torn Achilles) and sophomore tight end Brent Wilkerson (back surgery) took part in drills during the open session with little to no issue.
The only notable absence was tight end Jesse James, who was said to be in class.
Three walk-ons depart
Quarterback Jack Seymour, lineman Austin Fiedler and linebacker Kyle Searfoss are not on the spring roster.
Penn State confirmed that all three former walk-ons will not return.