Penn State notebook: Woes on special teams could be a depth problem

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Sam Ficken was so close to making the tackle. He cornered Nebraska kick returner Kenny Bell, staring at his prey, pinpointing the proper time to execute. Then Bell leaped over him and scored a touchdown.

For the second week in a row, Penn State allowed an opponent to return a kickoff for a touchdown. While it's interesting to watch Ficken try to make these tackles, it's a sight Penn State would rather do without.

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien acknowledged a need for the kickoff team to improve after a 23-20 overtime loss Saturday to the Cornhuskers. Saying this is one thing; actually doing it is much tougher.

The NCAA sanctions might have an adverse effect on Penn State's special teams. With few scholarship players, Penn State lacks the depth necessary to field its best kickoff team.

In the past, stars such as Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges would play special teams because there would be enough depth to give them adequate rest from their linebacker duties during the games. That isn't the case this year. Linebacker Mike Hull, for example, isn't appearing on special teams.

Instead, walk-ons and inexperienced players comprise Penn State's kickoff return team. After the Purdue game Nov. 16, O'Brien suggested he might make some changes to the kickoff team. But on Tuesday he backed away from that plan.

"We're not going to make any personnel changes on that team unless it's because of injury," he said. "Right now they seem to be healthy. We're going to coach it better, get these guys to study the film better, get these guys to understand it a little bit better how to avoid blocks and on what side to avoid and things like that, lane discipline and all those things."

Clearly, the problems didn't go away. O'Brien was generally mum about the topic after the Nebraska loss, saying they just needed to work harder. There really isn't much he can do.

Kenney left out

Although O'Brien said Tuesday that Alex Kenney's Penn State career would end after this season, Kenney was not honored Saturday with the rest of the seniors before the game.

"That was a discussion that Alex and I had, a personal discussion," O'Brien said. "I'll leave that between Alex and I. He's done everything we've asked him to do in the football program."

Lehman return doubtful

Injured tight end Matt Lehman likely won't be granted a redshirt for a sixth year of eligibility, O'Brien said after the game. Lehman hurt his knee in the first game against Syracuse and hasn't played since. He was a captain Saturday.

Belton's absence

Running back Bill Belton did not play Saturday. O'Brien said Belton had an injured shoulder and strep throat.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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