UNIVERSITY PARK - Only 12 teams in the nation had more touchbacks than Penn State's 21 last year, thanks to kicker Kevin Kelly's leg strength.
Defending returns on the other 57 kickoffs was a different story, however.
The Nittany Lions ranked 116th out of 119 teams in allowing a 26.36 kickoff return average in 2007, besting only UNLV, Wyoming, and Utah State. Those three schools combined for nine wins, the same number Penn State had.
While it might seem on the surface that kickoff coverage didn't hurt the Nittany Lions, consider what happened in the first quarter at Illinois last year.
Kelly kicked a 26-yard field goal after a lengthy drive to start the game, only to have Arrelious Benn return his ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 Illini lead. Illinois never trailed again in a 27-20 victory, a game many Penn State fans expected to be a win.
Also, Michigan State's Andrew Hawken returned a short Kelly kickoff 30 yards to the Penn State 40 in the fourth quarter last year, giving the Spartans momentum to erase a 10-point deficit in a 35-31 win in the regular-season finale.
Many unhappy returns
How Penn State's kickoff coverage has fared this decade:
YearRet. Avg.NCAA rank
While kickoff coverage didn't cost the Lions in a 26-19 home win against Purdue, Dorien Bryant's 98-yard return for a touchdown to start the game shocked the Beaver Stadium crowd and put the Lions in an early hole.
Those plays drew concern for a problem area in recent years, and even coach Joe Paterno said this preseason it's still a legitimate criticism.
Penn State's kickoff coverage has finished in the top half nationally just twice this decade as it continues to divvy up special teams responsibility across the coaching staff instead of having one person oversee the entire operation.
''I think it is personnel, making sure we don't put the leftovers on the kickoff team,'' Paterno said. ''We can't do that. I think we've got to do a little better job on personnel, and obviously that comes from me.''
First-year safeties coach Kermit Buggs, who will oversee the kickoff return unit, said there isn't a ''gunner'' on the squad in the mold of former Buffalo Bills special teams ace Steve Tasker, but that wasn't an excuse.
''Awareness just wasn't good,'' Buggs said. ''We've got to get the players to understand what's going on and get smarter covering kicks. We'll change the scheme a little, but I think we've got it.''
Punt coverage is not a habitual problem for Penn State. The Lions improved from recent seasons to rank 10th nationally for a second straight year at 5.35 yards per return in 2007. Part of the success there was walk-on Jeremy Boone, who earned a scholarship after leading the Big Ten last year with a 41.1-yard net punting average that was third best in the nation.
Buggs wouldn't mind success from Larry Johnson's punt return unit carrying over to his kickoff return group.
''The only guy close to a [gunner] would be Knowledge Timmons, who did a great job for Larry,'' Buggs said. ''We've got to implement a lot of players across the board, not just one guy.''
The rest of the special teams have a better outlook. A.J. Wallace and Derrick Williams ranked third in the Big Ten last year in kickoff and punt returns with 26.4 and 11.0 averages, respectively.
Kelly hopes he can improve beyond 40 yards to continue boosting his school record of 58 career field goals in his senior season. He's worked with Dave Crocker, a Philadelphia-area kicking coach and friend of NFL punter Sean Landeta, to swing his leg straighter through the ball and reduce hooks.
Kelly was 17-for-17 inside 40 yards last year, but 2-for-7 outside 40 yards. He is 8-for-17 in his career outside 40 yards.
''It's a mental block, going straight,'' said Kelly, who must go outside the program for technical support since Penn State, like most other schools, does not employ a full-time kicking coach. ''I tend to round out my leg and sweep it left.''
Like Boone on punts, Kelly has worked on hang time on kickoffs. He's well aware of the Lions' low standing on kickoff coverage, and while he doesn't like to mix it up on the return play, he does what he can to help.
''It's easy to see what the difference five yards made with us,'' Kelly said. ''Those touchbacks are huge, but we need more height.''
Buggs has a specific field-position goal for when Kelly doesn't reach the end zone.
''We keep them within the 25-28 yard line, and we're a good unit,'' Buggs said.
Ben Brigandi is Sports Editor of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.