UNIVERSITY PARK - When Anthony Fera transferred to Texas earlier this month, it left openings at all three kicking positions for Penn State with less than a month to go before the beginning of the season.
In light of that and other key transfer losses, Nittany Lion coach Bill O'Brien's message has been consistent throughout the long offseason.
"Next man up," O'Brien has said.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Sam Ficken kicks with Matt McGloin holding recently.
While Fera was considered one of the better specialists in the country last season, O'Brien feels confident about replacing the kicker with guys who previously were behind him on the depth chart.
Fera was responsible for just more than 16 percent of the offensive point production a season ago. Penn State scored 251 points, and 42 of those came from Fera. He also averaged 42 yards a punt and pinned Penn State's opponents inside the 20-yard line 16 times.
Sophomore Sam Ficken will assume the kickoff and place-kicking duties this year. Last season, Ficken saw limited time as a true freshman and connected on 1-of-2 field-goal attempts while kicking off a few times as well.
Ficken echoed his coach's sentiments of "next man up" and feels confident both he and his fellow specialists can step in and do their jobs.
"People are filling in, they are stepping up, and really I don't think it's going to be a big difference from last year," Ficken said.
Ficken was a former two-sport athlete at Valparaiso High School in Indiana, playing soccer and football. But a school rule forced him to pick between the two sports, and Ficken chose to concentrate on football for a better opportunity to play in college.
He booted his first kick of his junior season into the back of the end zone for a touchback and was given the starting job from then on. Ficken said he has never missed an extra point, and it is something he takes a great deal of pride in.
O'Brien said he has seen that consistency in his kicker through the beginning of training camp.
"We've got the place-kicker, Sam Ficken, who so far in practice has kicked the ball consistently and done a good job there," the coach said.
As for the kickoffs, Ficken said that is now more of an art form with the rule changes coming into effect this season. The NCAA has moved kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35-yard line and brought touchbacks up from the 20 to the 25-yard line.
He said the change will force coaching staffs and kickers to think harder about the location and angle of the kick, and his job will, at times, be more about finesse rather than power.
While the place-kicker is set, things are not as clear when it comes to the starting punter.
Junior Alex Butterworth and redshirt freshman Matt Marcincin are in "stiff competition," according to coach John Butler, who handles the punters. Butler added the competition may go through the season and be evaluated on a day-to-day basis.
"Both those guys have shown flashes of being good punters," O'Brien said of the two.
Butterworth started the first three games last season as the punter before relinquishing the duties to his close friend Fera. Butterworth said Fera gave him some words of motivation, and the two said they would be rooting each other on this season before Fera left.
"Before [Fera] left, he said, 'Listen, you have done this before, you can do this again, just go out and do what we both know you can do,'" Butterworth said of the conversation between the two friends and former teammates.
The Lions and O'Brien have been committing a great deal of meeting and practice time to the special teams units. O'Brien said he even has some starters working in on the various teams to help provide a spark and depth.
Butler said that just by the sheer number of cumulative practice reps the team dedicates to the kicking and punting games will make those areas of the team good enough to be competitive.
Special teams figure to be as vital a part of O'Brien's overall game plan as any other facet.
"We are not going to be an offensive unit, defensive unit and a special teams unit," Butler said. "When we game plan, everything is intertwined, and when we get to a certain area and special teams becomes involved, we are going to play to that."
Butler added that although the team has a strong group of specialists, they will need to continue to develop as training camp and the season move forward.
Although there is room to grow, Butterworth said it is comforting to know he has already seen game action in each of his first two seasons, and that experience will help to calm his nerves when he does get out on the field. That and knowing the Penn State faithful is behind each player.
"You go out there and there is 110,000 fans and it's pretty nerve-wracking, but you still have in the back of your head that they are all supporting you and there probably is not one fan that isn't behind your back," Butterworth said. "That gives you a good feeling, but it also helps to have your first game out of the way."