Sunday, October 18, 2015
Penn State Football: Franklin Issues a Campus-wide Call for Punters
James Franklin is searching for a punter.
And he may be looking everywhere on the Penn State campus -- from Rec Hall to the IM fields.
“If we need to have open tryouts, we’re going to have to find a way to solve that problem,” Franklin said after Penn State lost 38-10 to Ohio State on Saturday night. “Punting has been a major problem for us.”
So, if he is to be believed, Franklin’s staff may even dig into the ranks of the former high school heroes playing IM football on Penn State’s more 210 intramural teams.
That could mean the nearly 20 dozen punters now in full-midseason form – the season started Oct. 7, and play-offs begin Nov. 9
Who knows? Maybe the starting punter of IM teams like for Bigler The Better or Capt. Crunch and the Cereal Killers or Deflate The Balls or Friday Natty Lights may be the answer to Franklin’s problems. Because believe the Penn State head coach when he says he’s not happy. And that begins with the pair of punters he already has in his locker room.
Penn State’s Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla netted just 33.4 yards on seven punts against Ohio State, while OSU punter Cameron Johnston netted 41.6 yards per kick – and had zero of his punts returned. That’s a big swing. Penn State had one punt inside the 20, while Johnston had four.
“That’s significant -- the fact that their punter was able to be really aggressive and get the ball off,” Franklin said. “Not only was he able to swing the field position at times, but he was able to sky punt us and back us down there deep a couple of times. One time, the ball rolled down to the 2- or 3-yard line and numerous times we caught the ball on the 6.
“Then, we go to punt it and oh, what was the average?” Franklin asked, as he gave a quick glance at the post-game stat sheet before answering his own question. “It wasn’t very good. That field position kept catching up with us.”
Penn State lost the field position battle to Ohio State by 20 yards per possession. The Nittany Lion offense started their average drive at their own 16-yard line, while the Buckeyes started on their own 36. That swing lengthened the field by 20% every time Penn State got the ball – too big of a margin any time, but massive when you are facing the No. 1 team with the likes country with the likes of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Penn State often started its drives in a hole, as a look at its 12 starting points – all in its own end – reveals: the 35-yard line, 25, 23, 23, 22, 21, 15, 14, 8, 8, 4 and 2.
Ohio State started three of its drives over the 50 and in Penn State territory, at the PSU 45-yard line, the 35 and the 22. The Buckeyes’ other 10 drives started at their own 41, 34, 32, 30, 29, 25, 25, 22, 15 and 4. A fourth-quarter fumble by Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg and some offensive ineptitude contributed to the Buckeyes’ great field position. But poor Penn State punting played into a good – or, rather, bad – part of it as well.
“We’re having major issues – we’ve had major issues for two years – with punting the football,” Franklin said. “The way we want to play right now, which is play great on defense and find ways to grind it out on offense and play field position. We haven’t been able to do that for two years.”
Actually, it’s been four years, dating back to the two years the Nittany Lions were led by Bill O’Brien, who also was exasperated at times by Penn State’s inefficient and ineffective punting game.
Penn State’s punting predicament is due in part to the NCAA sanctions, which limited the number of scholarships that Penn State could offer and thereby meant that its punters have been typically non-scholarship players.
Gulla is a preferred walk-on who made his name in high school as a place-kicker, while Pasquariello is from Australia, where he trained with Prokick Australia. In 2015, opposing punters have outperformed Penn State’s kickers in fair catches (14 to 6) and punts inside the 20 (15 to 12). When margins are already thin with a Penn State offense that struggles to rank in the Top 100 nationally, those discrepancies are magnified.
“If we could have played the field position game and ran the ball more consistently and not gotten the negative yardage plays,” Franklin said, “I think we would have had a chance to get the game to the fourth quarter in a little bit ore of a competitive fashion and see what happens.”
Maybe Franklin’s idea of a campus-wide cattle call might work. There are about 21,875 undergraduate males on campus. Of course, he might look elsewhere – like back inside his own locker room.
Robbie Liebel is one option. A product of IMG Academy in Florida, he’s a redshirt freshman who averaged 43 yards per punt at IMG under head coach Chris Weinke and in 2014 was rated the No. 1 prep soccer goalkeeper in Florida. Tyler Davis, the back-up place-kicker from Illinois who plated year of collegiate soccer at Bradley, is also listed as a punter -- although he did not play football in high school.
Do-everything linebacker, special teams ace and senior co-captain Von Walker did some punting at Central Mountain High School. And then there’s Hackenberg, who punted twice as a Penn State freshman in 2013 for 43 and 42 yards. Neither punt was returned, as one was a touchback and the other was bottled inside the 20. (Let’s not discuss his 5-yarder last season.)
No matter which direction Franklin goes, it is likely to be a short-term fix. Which could be a good thing.
Franklin already has a verbal commitment from high school senior Blake Gillikin to join the Nittany Lions in 2016. From Atlanta, Gillikin averaged 41.7 yards per punt last season and is ranked as the No. 4 punter in the country.