UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- By the end of last season, Penn State had improved to the point that they ranked in the top half of the Big Ten in nearly every category, from pass efficiency to pass-defense efficiency to total defense to total offense. Success mostly eluded Penn State in just one facet of the game: special teams.
The Nittany Lions finished last in the Big Ten in kickoff returns, averaging 18.1 yards per return. They finished ninth in punt returns. Their kickoff coverage ranked 10th and, despite a strong finish to the year from Sam Ficken, they were eighth in field-goal percentage.
"We have to kick the ball better," coach Bill O'Brien said. "Our return game needs to improve."
Ficken, a junior, will be back as kicker. He made 14 of 21 field goals last season, including 10 in a row to end the year. O'Brien said senior Alex Butterworth will be his starting punter. Butterworth averaged 37.4 yards per game on 51 punts. He did not rank statistically among the top 10 punters in the Big Ten.
O'Brien said he considered the return coverage on punts and kickoffs to have been a strength. He acknowledged that he's tinkering with kickoff and punt returns by trying out a few new players. Among those who could return kicks and punts are Bill Belton, Trevor Williams, Geno Lewis, Akeel Lynch, Richy Anderson and Alex Kenney.
Ferguson with an early edge
O'Brien can tell that sophomore quarterback Tyler Ferguson must have spent some of his time home in California this summer studying the playbook. He's pleased with his knowledge, athleticism and that he is asking questions in meetings.
"I would say that after three days, Tyler is a little bit ahead [in the quarterback competition]," O'Brien said. "Again, because he has knowledge of the offense."
O'Brien said Ferguson took most of the first-team repetitions. He had positive things to say about Christian Hackenberg as well, mainly that he's impressed with how much the freshman has learned in a short time.
"These are talented guys," O'Brien said. "We have to get past all the recruiting, get past all that. These are two very talented quarterbacks at the Penn State football program now."
O'Brien said freshman wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton will miss this season with a wrist injury remaining from high school. Redshirt freshman tight end Brent Wilkerson will miss some time with a back injury and sophomore linebacker Ben Kline has been in and out with a shoulder injury.
Penn State will be featured on ESPN's All-Access television program Aug.20, meaning cameras and microphones have been present throughout the early days of preseason practice. "I told them no more microphones on me at practice because it's not on HBO. It's on ESPN," O'Brien said. ... Running back Zach Zwinak said his wrist injury did not stop him from progressing in workouts this summer and that he plans to be ready for the opener.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published August 9, 2013 4:00 AM