Four looking to become Lions’ punter

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State was one of the worst punting teams in the country last season, and those problems must be resolved on a squad that could have to punt a lot this year.

The Nittany Lions will be replacing Alex Butterworth, who was inconsistent to say the least. He averaged 39.2 yards per punt a year ago, but PSU’s net punting average of 35.4 yards ranked 10th in the Big Ten and 97th in the nation, out of 123 teams.

Interestingly enough, the Lions’ season-opening opponent, Central Florida, finished just one spot better than that at 96th in the country last year. So punting could be a big key for both clubs in the Aug. 30 opener in Dublin.

There are four candidates to replace Butterworth, although one is senior place-kicker Sam Ficken, and it wouldn’t be ideal to have him handle all of the kicking duties.

None of the other three candidates have ever played a game of college football. They are:

n Chris Gulla: A redshirt freshman, he’s considered the favorite for the job since he’s been in the program for a year and has the most experience. He was a four-year starter at Toms River North High School in New Jersey – playing for former PSU receiver Chip LaBarca – and earned All-Shore honors twice.

n Robby Liebel: A true freshman from St. Petersburg, Fla., he’s a product of the prestigious IMG Academy, which is coached by former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke.

n Danny Pasquariello: A true freshman who made it to PSU all the way from Melbourne, Australia. He’s a product of that country’s Prokick program, which specializes in preparing punters for American college football. He can actually punt with both feet.

Coach James Franklin has been impressed with the punters during preseason camp, and it seems clear that whoever is most consistent will get the job.

“I’d rather you punt it 38 yards every single time than one time punt it 56 yards, another time 26 yards,” Franklin said this week.

The biggest asset the team has from a punting standpoint is that there’s a lot of competition for the job.

“Whoever becomes the guy is going to be tested because he’s going to have to compete every day from now until we get to Central Florida,” special teams coordinator Charles Huff said.

“We know whoever it is, you run into an issue when you don’t have anybody to push the guy who is in front. You worry about getting lackadaisical or falling in a groove. But when you come out every day and you have two or three guys that are going to compete, when you win the job, you won it fair and square.”

Punting is always important, but a lot of years struggles in that area of the kicking game can be masked by strengths in other areas. This year, though, if Penn State has trouble punting, it could turn out to be a huge concern.

The offense has a dynamic quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, but it likely will take a good bit of time for the unproven offensive line and young receivers to figure things out. Plus, Central Florida returns nine starters on defense, so first downs could be especially tough to come by in the opener.

Depending on how long it takes for PSU’s offense to click, it’s not unreasonable to think the Lions will be punting at least seven or eight times per game early on.

The kick itself is one thing, but the Lions could actually improve this year in punt coverage, which would help in the net yardage category. Franklin wants to have a lot of speed on the field at all times, and Huff is constantly talking and tweeting about his nekton philosophy of attacking on special teams.

That aspect will be on display on punt and kickoff return coverage.

“It’s definitely a help because any time you can play faster, you race angles, you cover better and you’re able to defeat some people in coverage,” Huff said of the speed on special teams. “Your return game is better. As a team we got faster, so now, as Coach (Franklin) talked about, every day that we compete against each other, we are competing against people that have gotten faster.”