Can the hiring of Joe Lorig as special teams coordinator be the impetus for a big season in the return game for Penn State speedster K.J. Hamler? (AP PHOTO / HOLLY HART)
Penn State felt it had the pieces in place to be dynamic in certain areas of its special teams last season.
It hardly looked dynamic as the season wound down, though.
That’s why fans, at least, seemed ready to move on from first-year coordinator Phil Galiano after the 2018 season and pursue a new avenue on special teams. Galiano didn’t get relieved of his duties (he found an assistant special teams coordinator job with the New Orleans Saints last week), but head coach James Franklin got the opportunity to seek that new direction anyway.
He landed Thursday afternoon on a 22-year veteran coach who, statistically, has been one of the better coordinators in the nation.
But how much of an impact can the Nittany Lions, and their increasingly demanding fans, expect Joe Lorig to make as he heads into his first season — the only one those same fans were willing to give Galiano?
Well, if the numbers are any indication, Lorig has made big impacts pretty quickly in his past lives as special teams coordinator.
Lets look at his previous two stops as special teams coordinator (not including his six-week run at Texas Tech, a job he took in January, which he left to accept the Penn State position).
In 2012 and 2013, he ran the special teams at Arizona State, and he did something that really isn’t easy to do in major college football: He coached a kicker who’d go on to the NFL. In 2013, Zane Gonzalez ranked first in the Pac-12 and fifth nationally in field goals per game (1.8) and 29th nationally in field goal percentage (.833). His 25 made field goals tied an NCAA freshman record that season; the one before, Lorig’s punter, Josh Hubner, posted a school-record 47.1 yards per punt average, netting him All-American honors.
The last three seasons at Memphis, Lorig’s special teams units became some of the best in the nation.
The Tigers finished in the top 5 in FBS in kick return average twice and in the top 20 in kick return defense every year. They did not allow a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown in three years under Lorig.
Also, Troy Pollard became one of the nation’s top kick returners under Lorig’s tutelage. He established a school-record and FBS-record-tying seven kickoffs returned for a touchdown in his career, including four returns for scores in 2017. Pollard was selected as the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Special Teams Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017 and was a first-team All-American in 2017. He also tied the FBS record for kick return touchdowns and is among the FBS’s career leaders in kickoff return average (30.1).
In 2016, he coached another kicker who’d go on to the NFL, Jake Elliott, who made all 58 of his extra points and connected on 21 of 26 field goals as a senior.
Clearly, the guy has a sense of how to get the most out of special teamers.
At Penn State, he’ll have a group coming off a downswing, but he’ll also have some pretty good raw materials with which to work. K.J. Hamler has some explosion as a punt and kick returner, even though he didn’t provide much of a spark over the last five games on either kickoffs or punts. Kicker Jake Pinegar hit 12 of his last 16 field goal attempts, despite a rough Citrus Bowl, and showed he could be in line for a big jump. And while punter Blake Gillikin had his most inconsistent season, it’s hardly out of the question that Lorig helps him regain the form that made him a professional prospect as a freshman and sophomore.
Bottom line is, the struggles of the special teams in 2018 from an execution and organizational standpoint were fairly commonly passed off on Galiano, and that may or may not be totally fair. But what’s fair to deduce now is that Lorig is inheriting a more veteran group than Galiano had, and he’s shown an ability to get organized and put a better product on the field because of that. He’ll have every chance to make an immediate and noticeable impact in 2019.