The most wide-open battle for a starting job for the Lions may be at the quietest of positions.
It’s anyone’s guess who will handle punting duties two weeks from today when Penn State opens the season against UCF in Dublin.
The odds-on favorite coming into camp was likely redshirt freshman Chris Gulla, who was a preferred walk-on for Bill O’Brien’s staff a year ago.
Gulla is being challenged by a pair of true freshman walk-ons — Australia transplant Daniel Pasquariello and Robby Liebel, who was high school teammates with fellow Lions newcomer Michael O’Connor last year at IMG Academy in Florida.
With the entire roster watching them, all three took a couple of boots during Thursday’s final section of practice that was open to reporters. Coach James Franklin wanted them to keep kicking until he saw them hit a certain distance and a certain hang-time, all while placing it outside the numbers on the field.
Tougher than it sounds.
In a very small sample size, Liebel had the longest punt out of the three, followed by Pasquariello, then Gulla. Lions coach James Franklin said the competition was too close to call right now.
“They’re just so much more confident in what we’re asking them to do,” Franklin said after the practice. “And they’re consistent. I’d rather you punt it 38 yards every single time than punt it one time 56 yards and the other time 26 yards.
“It’s about consistency, and they’ve done a much better job of that. The location of the ball is something we talk a lot about with those guys, and I see their confidence growing.”
Returners under fire
That’s one part of the special teams equation. How about the return game?
The Lions didn’t run any return drills during the open session of Thursday’s practice, but Penn State posted some clips earlier in the week on the team’s website, showing off some interesting drills.
It began with Jordan Lucas already having a football in each hand and a third one tucked away under his arm before preparing to catch a fourth.
New special teams coordinator Charles Huff wasn’t about to make it easy for Lucas as he looked to track down a punt in practice this week.
“There’s 107,000 people screaming at you!” Huff barked. “There’s 107,000 people screaming!”
For his part, Lucas — one of the handful of candidates to lead the return team this season — deftly hauled in the fourth punt without dropping a ball. And he came oh-so-close to snagging a fifth, only to have it bounce out at the last second as Huff laughed.
Huff is big on psychology when it comes to special teams, and this sneak peek from the team was actually on the tame side. Senior kicker Sam Ficken said during spring ball Huff and Franklin would squirt water at him while he was attempting field goals to try and distract him. Return men have also had large exercise balls bounced in their direction while trying to focus on catching a punt or kickoff.
After last season’s struggles in most facets of special teams, the Lions are willing to try anything to improve.
Aside from sub-par numbers in the return game, Penn State surrendered touchdowns on kickoffs in consecutive games last November, including one that ultimately led to an overtime loss to Nebraska.
It’s still early in camp yet to know for sure, but one way the Lions can bolster the group is to rely more on upperclassmen. Bill O’Brien’s staff had been wary of using his more experienced players on special teams for fear of injuries on an already depleted roster.
Players like senior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan and junior cornerback Trevor Williams — both projected starters on defense — were shown working on the coverage unit in the video, indicating Huff may be willing to take on some more risk this year.
“I’m gonna find out real fast if you belong on this (special teams unit) or not,” Huff told his players. “And it’s not personal if you’re not on there tomorrow. OK? It’s not personal. I like to win.”