Entering the 2017 season, Penn State struggled in the return game as it struggled to get big gains in the kick return and punt return game. Last year, the Nittany Lions failed to gain 20 yards per kick and seven yards per punt.
John Reid was the main punt returner last season, but he struggled with whiffs and sustained a knee injury in the spring. Gregg Garrity became the featured man when Reid was put in the doghouse, but he was not able to break big gains.
DeAndre Thompkins had also returned punts in his Penn State career, but he also spent some time in James Franklin’s doghouse by muffing punts. This year has been a totally different as he has been dynamic for the Nittany Lions.
Currently, he has not muffed a punt and is second in the Big Ten with a 20.2 yards per punt average.
His ability to weave in and out of defenders has caused problems for opposing coverage units. The Akron Zips found that out first hand as Thompkins returned four punts for 127 yards and a touchdown, the first time since Derrick Williams did it against Wisconsin back in 2008.
His confidence as a returner has given the return game a boost as the blocking has improved on both kicks and punts. While Saquon Barkley currently runs back kicks, Thompkins’ ability to make plays in the open field should give Franklin reason to put both of them back there. With both players as options, Barkley has less pressure to take some kicks, while giving an electrifying player more touches.
Thompkins has given the Nittany Lion offense a jolt as well as every big return he has sets them up in good field position. Joe Moorhead can now utilize more of the offensive weapons Penn State has because the opposing defense only has a limited amount of space to cover them.
While Akron, Pittsburgh and Georgia State are not among the elite of college football, they all have players capable of stepping up and stopping returns, but were unable to stop the slippery Thompkins from getting loose. His play on Saturday will be a huge part of the game.
Special teams is always important in close games and the ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory is huge. Big time returns not only alleviate the pressure of the offense, but it also gives momentum to the team that returned the ball. If Thompkins is able to break one for a touchdown or weave his way through multiple defenders for a huge gain, Penn State will have all the momentum it needs to win the game at Iowa.
The Nittany Lions have not faced a team as good as Iowa yet this season, so early game jitters are to be expected. A big punt return by Thompkins early can ease the pressure and allow the offense to perform to its full ability.