<
>
Insider

Position review: Special teams

12/3/2012

Every day for two weeks, NittanyNation is taking a closer look at each position and how Penn State fared over the course of the season.

Today: Special teams

In early October, it wouldn't have been a stretch to say Penn State had the worst kicker/punter combo in the nation. Sam Ficken was just 2-of-8, and Alex Butterworth was wildly inconsistent. As a whole, special teams was in disarray.

The Gerald Hodges-as-returner experiment failed, and Penn State couldn't seem to find a returner it felt comfortable with. But as the season progressed, the coaching staff began to correct some of those mistakes. Thanks to some advice from John Butler and some fellow kickers, Ficken -- the weakest part of special teams -- turned it around in a big way.

Bill O'Brien didn't trust the sophomore kicker over 40 yards, but Ficken nailed his last 10 field goals. Butterworth's consistency remained an issue for much of the season, but he still improved after Week 1. Overall, PSU went from one of the worst to just below average.

Despite the improvement, the Nittany Lions still finished 104th in the nation in punting average, and Ficken was the 25th-worst kicker in field goal percentage.

NittanyNation rating: D-plus

Season highlight: Nov. 24 vs. Wisconsin. Ficken, the player who went 1-of-5 against Virginia, put an exclamation mark on the final game of the season. He nailed three field goals -- including the game-winner in overtime -- and labeled this ending a "fairy tale" in the interview room.

His first two field goals came from 23 and 32 yards, but the most important attempt came from 37. Ficken's kick caused Beaver Stadium to explode in ecstasy and ended up being one of the most memorable plays of the season.

What was missing at this position? Consistency, distance and accuracy -- take your pick. Ficken's accuracy within 40 yards no longer seems in question, but he still can't be counted on to consistently nail anything longer. Butterworth's longest punts came as a result of rugby-style kicks that bounced a lot, and his hang time and distance were far from ideal. As a whole, the special teams had some consistency issues -- and there's a lot here to improve on during the offseason.