Pinegar excited about new hire

UNIVERSITY PARK — When Jake Pinegar ran onto the field with his teammates for the season opener against Appalachian State in 2018, he was quick to admit that he felt a little nervous.

But the true freshman place kicker didn’t look nervous in his first collegiate action, drilling all six of his extra points and his lone field goal attempt in Penn State’s overtime win over the Mountaineers.

“The first game obviously was nerve-racking,” Pinegar said last month. “But it was also really fun and great to get out there. I try to treat each game as the same, not one game is bigger than another, even if that’s what the media portrays or that’s how it’s hyped up.”

Despite a promising start to the season, Pinegar — and the rest of the special teams unit — had a 2018 season to forget.

Arguably the most-criticized unit on the Nittany Lions last season, Pinegar and his teammates capped off the campaign with a performance against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl that featured two missed field goals, a botched fake punt and a Wildcats punt return touchdown.

A few months later, however, Penn State’s special teams unit has a new man in charge — Joe Lorig. He took over after former special teams coordinator Phil Galiano took a job in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints during the offseason.

Right from the start, Pinegar could notice a difference.

“The first time Coach Lorig met with our team, people were drawn to him,” Pinegar said. “He’s a great leader, a great coach, he expects a lot out of his players. That holds us players to a high standard so that we need to be on our A-game all the time and I think that’s a really good thing.”

The crowning achievement of Lorig’s career to date was his turnaround of the Memphis special teams program. Prior to his arrival in 2016, Memphis hadn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 1997, which was the longest drought in the FBS at that time.

But over the last three seasons, running back Tony Pollard — who is now a member of the Dallas Cowboys — returned seven kickoffs for touchdowns, which is tied for the most in NCAA history.

“Special teams can’t be about me,” Lorig said at his introductory press conference. “It’s not my deal. It’s our deal. When you get a collective group together like that, really special things happen.”

“The fastest way you can improve as a football team is in your special teams unit,” Lorig added.

Lorig certainly has the talent to improve the Nittany Lions’ special teams unit, and quickly.

KJ Hamler proved to be a threat on both kickoff and punt returns. Blake Gillikin is entering his fourth year as the starting punter. And, Pinegar showed plenty of promise in his freshman year.

“There were some things that we needed to clean up and I think that he put an emphasis on that in spring practice and I think he’s going to continue to do that throughout the summer and fall camp,” Pinegar said of Lorig’s message to the unit in the spring. “When we start playing come late August, I think we’re going to have things cleaned up.”

For Pinegar in particular, he was quick to note that he’s been focused on his approach this offseason.

“If it’s a 20-yarder or a 40-yarder, just having the same consistent approach,” Pinegar said. “Also, just having that one play mentality. If I have a bad kick or don’t kick it the way I want to, [I] just focus on the next one.”

After an inconsistent season first collegiate season, that consistent mindset could go a long way for Pinegar and his special teams partners as they try to change the perception of them from last season.

“To be honest with you, I saw a lot of good things also,” Lorig said of his new unit. “I saw a lot of really talented guys that play really hard, and if you have that, you can build a culture.”

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