Albeit from differing perspectives, there probably isn’t a Penn State player who has gotten a closer look at what might have been the hottest competition for starting jobs during preseason camp than Kyle Vasey.
The Wallenpaupack grad’s job is as secure as it gets, of course. He took over long-snapping duties for the Nittany Lions last season, and he did so well that he earned a scholarship in the offseason. But all around him in August, unknown commodities fluttered about. Guys like Rafael Checa and Vlad Hilling and Jake Pinegar and Justin Tobin and Carson Landis, players most Penn State fans had never heard of a year ago at this time. Guys who have never played college football before, but who were vying to man one of the most important, if least heralded, positions the 2018 squad had open.
We know how it broke down. The true freshman Pinegar will handle field goals when the Nittany Lions open the season against Appalachian State on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Another true freshman, Rafael Checa, will handle kickoffs. Typically though, depth charts tell you only how the competition ended, and not how it went. But head coach James Franklin raved about the performance of the candidates to replace Tyler Davis, saying that it was the best competition for the kicker spot the program has seen “by far” during his time in Happy Valley. He went on to say that he’d feel comfortable with any of Pinegar, Hilling, Checa or Tobin kicking field goals during a game.
The player who worked nearest to those kickers concurred.
“I think it was a great competition, to be honest with you, at the kickoff spot and the field goal spot,” Vasey said during a conference call Wednesday morning. “All four of the guys we had trying for it, or all five of the guys, were extremely competitive. They all worked to perfect their crafts, and I’m very, very excited to see what they can do on Saturday.”
Pinegar was the lone candidate to hold a scholarship, which likely gave him at least a slight edge heading into camp. But, Vasey noted that also could have added some pressure to his candidacy.
Thing was, Pinegar never seemed fazed by any of it. Nor did he seem like a rookie college kicker at all.
“I thought he handled that very well,” Vasey said. “He really handled it with a calm mentality just like the rest of the guys had going, and he was really able to thrive under the pressure. Overall, he took a very mature (approach) to it. He wasn’t focused on overkicking and totally tiring out his leg. He really focused on the nuances of kicking, and that’s why he was successful.”
Vasey went on to say that Checa approached the competition with a similar maturity, but it seems as if his leg strength might have separated him in the competition to kick off.
“I love that he’s going to be handling kickoffs,” he said. “I personally have not seen kickoffs go that deep into the end zone in my entire career, so I’m very excited to see what he can do.”
The effusive praise for Pinegar and Checa aside, Vasey was quick to point out that the kicking competition isn’t over. He said the kickers were told, and that he expects, the fight for playing time to continue throughout the season.
One of the reasons for that is Hilling, another freshman, has not only shown tremendous versatility, but also has seemed to capture the affections of his teammates and coaches. Franklin said Tuesday that Hilling is a unique personality who needs only to keep working on “his process” to compete for more time. He added that Hilling might have the strongest field-goal leg on the team.
“Vlad is a great character, a one-of-a-kind guy,” Vasey said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting the chance to know him throughout camp. He’s always in my room, just hanging out and having fun. He really thrives in and enjoys being part of the process of what he’s doing. He’s a solid kicker all around. But he’s that guy who just always has a smile on his face and is always working hard.”