Wyoming Valley Conference football fans had seen this plenty of times before. Eugene Lewis had the ball in space, and he was going to make something happen.
Last Saturday, it was on a kick return, and the Penn State wideout was as quick and decisive as he was in four standout seasons at Wyoming Valley West.
His 44-yard return in the first half gave the Nittany Lions a spark and solidified his spot as the Lions’ new top option on kickoffs.
“He had decent blocking, but what he did on that (return) is he made a decision,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “He didn’t stutter-step at all.”
In that way, he reminded O’Brien of Derrick Williams, who was an All-America return man for the Lions as a senior in 2008.
Driving in his car earlier this week, O’Brien heard Williams on a radio show talking about what makes a good return man.
“One of the things he said about the kick returner himself is (that) you can’t stutter-step. You have to hit it, make one cut and go. He’s exactly right.
“On that particular one, that’s what Geno did.”
Lewis’ big return was the longest for the Lions in the early going and would have stood as the team’s second-longest for all of 2012.
The return game was a weak point in O’Brien’s first season, but with the help of Lewis and punt returner Jesse Della Valle, there has already been some notable improvement.
Penn State tried eight players on kickoffs last season without finding one consistent threat. It was dire enough of a situation for the 2012 opener that O’Brien even had linebacker Gerald Hodges handle the first one of the season.
By year’s end, five players had at least four kick returns, with none taking hold of the job. As a team, the Lions averaged just 18.1 yards per return, ranking them 112th out of 120 teams in the nation.
Lewis got his first shot in Week 2 against Eastern Michigan and now has six returns in the past two games, averaging 25 yards a return. True freshman Von Walker has been Lewis’ partner during that stretch.
Though he redshirted last season, Lewis still worked with the return units on the field before each and every game, preparing for this opportunity.
“We’ll see how it goes at the end of training camp, but it feels good,” Lewis said of his chances to be a return man just before the start of the season. “Coach O’Brien is here to put everyone in a position to be successful. All you can ask for is an opportunity to make a big play.”
So far, he’s making the most of that opportunity.
“Geno’s got a pretty good knack for it,” O’Brien said on his weekly radio show on Thursday. “And he’s doing pretty well as a receiver, too. … He’s only going to get better and better. What a great kid.”
A return to country roads
Penn State’s long-term planning continued Thursday as the program finalized a home-and-home series with historic Eastern rival West Virginia.
The Lions and Mountaineers will play in the 2023 and 2024 seasons, opening the schedule in both years. Penn State will host West Virginia at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 2, 2023 and travel to Morgantown for Aug. 31, 2024.
Administrators from both schools had been in discussions for the past few months about renewing a series that had been played 59 times, but not since 1992 — the year before Penn State joined the Big Ten.
“The renewal of our West Virginia rivalry is a series our alumni and fans have wanted to see on our future schedules,” Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said in a statement.”I am appreciative of the efforts of (WVU athletic director) Oliver Luck in getting our two schools together again.
“As we prepare to move to a nine-game Big Ten schedule (2016), I am very pleased that we have been to able to schedule old rivals like West Virginia and Pitt and add Virginia Tech in upcoming years.”
Penn State and Pitt have a four-game series set for 2016-19, renewing the schools’ biggest rivalry. The Lions also scheduled a home-and-home set with the Hokies for 2022-23, the first time in history the teams will meet.