Looking to the past & future: Special teams

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
1:00
PM ET
It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position and unit on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Special teams

REWIND

[+] EnlargeFicken
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPenn State kicker Sam Ficken made 15-of-23 field goals this season.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: Despite kicker Sam Ficken's strong end to the season before, confidence wasn't exactly brimming after the kicker's sub-par performance in the Blue-White Game. Punter Alex Butterworth's limited ceiling didn't exactly inspire excitement, and it was simply hoped Penn State's special teams wouldn't cost the team any games. It wouldn't be good in 2013 ... but it couldn't possibly be worse than 2012, right?

How they fared: Ficken started off hot, broke the school record for consecutive made field goals (15), and then promptly cooled off and returned to his inconsistency from the season before. Butterworth had a marginally better year.

If this unit improved from 2012, it wasn't by much. Poor special teams cost Penn State a win against Nebraska, as Ficken missed a field goal and an extra point and Kenny Bell returned a kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown. PSU lost in overtime, 23-20. It was another season to forget for special teams.

What we learned: Ficken remains inconsistent. After nailing 15 straight field goals, it was pretty easy to jump on the kicker's bandwagon. But he still finished the season by making just 15-of-23 field goals (65 percent). He shortened up his approach, spent a year fine-tuning his new technique, succeeded and then ... well ... it just seemed to fall apart. It'll be difficult for fans or coaches to trust Ficken again, even if he remains the starting kicker.

Grading the position: D-minus. Butterworth downed 17 of 51 punts inside the 20, and Jesse Della Valle averaged a respectable 8.7 yards on punt returns. But there's not a lot of good to say outside of that. PSU finished near the bottom in just about every other special-teams category, such as kick return average (19.14 yards -- 100th in nation). If it wasn't for minor improvements by those two, this position would've easily gotten a failing grade. Heck, the argument could be made that it still probably deserves one.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Butterworth. He averaged 39.2 yards a punt, so it's not as if he's irreplaceable. Rising sophomore run-on Chris Gulla looks as if he'll take over punting duties since, well, there's just no one else. Gulla was groomed as Butterworth's replacement.

Position stock watch: On hold. Can special teams really fare much worse? Penn State added a kicker to its 2014 class in Troy Stivason and Gulla is more accustomed to field-goal kicking than punting anyway, so Penn State certainly has options there. It shouldn't be too difficult to match Butterworth's production; it just really comes down to the other areas like kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, etc. PSU will have more scholarships to work with in 2014, so it won't be forced to use players on special teams who just aren't ready -- or at least not as much as before. It's a wait-and-see approach with this unit as there's still plenty of question marks, but there should be some cautious optimism here.

Key to next season: Field-goal kicking. Penn State needs to put points on the scoreboard when it has the ability, so that's clearly the priority on all the special teams. Sure, it'll be breaking in a new punter ... but what's more costly -- a punter who averages 35 yards a kick or a kicker who makes 60 percent of his FGs? If Ficken picks up where he left off, the staff might not have much patience left over. Gulla has a year under his belt, and Stivason might be able to push as well. Ficken needs to improve, or someone else needs to step up.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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