First Posted: 4/9/2014
The coaches haven’t resorted to throwing pies in players’ faces. At least not yet.
It wouldn’t be a stretch for Penn State, given some of the tactics used during the first spring practice under James Franklin.
The new Nittany Lions coach had promised there would be a bigger focus on special teams on his watch. His players, though, probably weren’t expecting this.
“Yeah, he’ll squirt me in the face with some water, he’ll kind of yell right when you’re about to kick,” senior kicker Sam Ficken said. “He’ll get in your way, he’ll mess with the holders, he’ll wet the footballs.”
It’s part of a campaign to overhaul what had been a mediocre special teams unit from a year ago — both physically and mentally.
Right in the middle of the act is coordinator Charles Huff, who arrived at Penn State with as much bravado as any special teams coach in the country.
“We’ll be the first fast-paced, no-huddle special teams you’ve seen,” Huff said. “Get set, snap the ball, kickoff, get set and get ready to go. Play as fast as you can.
“We’ll try to eliminate the thinking and make it simple. You’re out there for six seconds. Special teams is not about getting the first down, second down or third down. You’re out there for six seconds — you come off the ball and make it happen.”
Good rhetoric for the coverage units and blockers on the return teams. But the actual specialists — kickers, punters, return men — get some special treatment.
Coaches have used anything at their disposal as a distraction.
Fielding punts is already a tense job. Now imagine having three tennis balls lobbed at you while trying to concentrate on the incoming kick. Or a giant aerobics ball bouncing into your field of vision.
The goal, of course, is to learn how to block it all out now and focus on just making the catch. The projectiles aren’t quite as intimidating as an opposing gunner screaming down the field, but they still serve a purpose.
Entering his fourth season, Ficken is well used to pressure. Few players on the roster have faced as much scrutiny as the Indiana native, who faced threats and taunts from fans over social media during his roughest patches.
This season, he’s hoping to take the lead as one of just 10 scholarship seniors on the roster.
“When it comes to special teams, you lead by example as a specialist,” Ficken said. “It’s hard to lead if you aren’t doing your job to the best of your abilities. I feel like with all of the experience I have, I definitely have an upper hand in that area where I can show what needs to be done.”
Redshirt freshman Chris Gulla is slated to take over punting duties from the departed Alex Butterworth. With no other punters on the roster this spring, however, Ficken has also practiced some punting in case he’s needed there as well.
Penn State has a handful of walk-on kickers arriving on campus in the summer, giving Ficken a chance to teach them how to deal with pressure on and off the field.
In the meantime, Ficken has saved some of his current teammates some extra running this spring. As part of the package of mind games, coaches ask Ficken to hit a long field goal, with the team forced to run laps if he misses.
One particularly memorable practice ended with Ficken nailing one from 55 yards out to send his teammates to the locker room early.
“The team gets really excited when we come through for them,” Ficken said.
Ficken credited some offseason work with a former Penn Stater, Pro Bowl kicker Robbie Gould, as helping with his consistency.
Also helping is the presence of a healthy Ryan Keiser as his holder. Keiser missed multiple games last season with injuries and Ficken said he believes that may have led to some of his issues in 2013.
All of that is to say that a little harassment from the coaches seems tame by comparison.
“The first time it caught me a little off guard,” Ficken said. “But I think you know you do get distractions in games. Maybe not water squirting in your eye or an air horn in your ear, but I think it definitely helps with your focus through the whole process.
“The first day it was a little surprising but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s kind of a challenge I look forward to.”
Caravan guests set
Penn State finalized all of the attendees for the school’s third annual Coaches Caravan, headlined by Franklin.
Franklin will be joined by men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowski and men’s volleyball coach Mark Pavlik when he visits Wilkes-Barre on May 20. The group will be at Genetti Hotel and Conference Center downtown for an evening reception.
The Caravan will also stop in Lackawanna County on May 14 as Franklin, wrestling coach Cael Sanderson and women’s soccer coach Erica Walsh will be at Fiorelli Catering in Peckville for a dinner event.