UNIVERSITY PARK Pa. - Penn State special teams coordinator and running backs coach Charles Huff talked with the media to preview the season opener against Kent State Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (BTN) in Beaver Stadium.
Updates from the Q&A with Coach Huff are below.
Q: Last year we talked a good bit about the punt returners and coach [Franklin] mentioned often about consistency with catching and that maybe you would use other players but you were worried about the consistency with them catching punts in games. Have you seen any marked improvement in that area in maybe some of the younger guys or other players you might use in those roles if you could rely on them more often?
Huff: We all sound like a broken record, with all the coaches telling you that having more depth and having more options and being able to have better practices. It goes back to that, having more options, having more depth. There were some guys that redshirted that caught punts in high school that we said, 'hey - this guy has shown the ability to catch some punts in high school is he a guy we give a chance,' well he's redshirting and we can't put him out there.
Also just having the pure competition back there, the group got bigger. We started to lose some of the guys we redshirted that we put in the group but now all the sudden we go from three or four options to five or six options. And the guys that we have here are a year older. A lot of the guys that played early for us like DeAndre Thompkins, did a great job for us. He had some issues in some games and put some on the ground which he has constantly worked on this summer, but if you think back, DeAndre was basically almost a true freshman. He had been here having come mid-year, but he was playing probably a little bit ahead of what he was in a perfect scenario where you would have loved him to play. He's a year older.
Gregg Garrity, he's a year older. All of those guys in situations where the circumstances demanded for them to have to be out there are now a year older and they have learned from those things and have been able to see some live game action. When the ball turns over different off a right footed punter or a left footed punter - all of those things that you gain that experience within a year with the depth, that kind of helps.
Q: One of the things we've heard Saquon Barkley talk about quite a bit and what we've seen in practice is how he kind of helps out the younger guys. Can you talk about the importance of an experienced proven guy helping some of the guys who are coming in?
Huff: It's awesome. The tough part is that you start looking around at your leaders or your experienced guys and you're talking about a true sophomore. So that's a positive and you kind of say, 'wow as young as he is and to have those skills,' I truly believe that leaders are born and it's up to the coaches to help them mature and teaching them ways to lead. But I think leaders are born and Sqauon is that type of person. And it helps - it's hard when your leaders aren't your best players. It makes it a lot easier when your leaders are your best players because then peers see more than what the coaches see. Peers see it as he's out there on the field making plays so I should probably listen to him because he's doing it right on and off the field. Coaches see a guy that gets it and sees the big picture. So whenever you can put the two together, you can do it on the field and off the field, it helps, and Saquon has been able to do that.
He has been able to handle the tough part sometimes which is when you're trying to be a leader, it makes it tough to prepare yourself because you're always motivating someone else and you're always kind of firing someone up. He has been able to do both, which has been unbelievable. He has been able to consistently improve his game and ask questions saying, 'hey coach I want to improve at this area or why am I struggling at this area,' and he's been able to share his knowledge with the younger guys. The guys like Andre [Robinson] who haven't played yet, and Miles [Sanders], who just got here. He basically said, 'hey these are some things that helped me along the way and these are some things I didn't learn until game four, five or six that I can tell you now that will help speed up your maturation process.'
Q: I'm curious how you thought Miles Sanders looked in camp, both as a kick returner and as a back. Would you guys consider easing him in as a kick returner that way you could try and get him involved to be able to play him at some point this year?
Huff: I think he [Sanders] looks great. Five stars are easy to see. We could send you out on the road recruiting and say, 'hey bring us back all the five stars and you could do that.' He physically looks like he could play. As you go through camp you get to see a little bit of the mental part - can he handle the playbook, is he able to translate and see blitzes and coverage? Then is he able to go to class and handle the schedule and routine - and he has done an awesome job with that so far.
Putting him back there at kick returner, it's one of those things where you want to be able to get good players on the field as much as possible and any time you can get a really good player on the field whether that's in the backfield, at wide out or at kick returner - you put yourself and you put the team in a much better position. We're looking at trying to get him those looks and returns and the running back and just getting him involved without forcing someone to do something maybe they are not ready for or that they'll kind of grow at.
As we go, we'll see if he can handle It. He has done an awesome job through camp. It will be interesting to see, a lot of those flashes that we see - hopefully it translates but there's going to be a little bit of 'wow I'm playing college football.' It's a growing, slow process and we're in a position now that we haven't been in since we've been here where we can bring those guys along slow, which in the long run I think is going to be a lot better than forcing them because of the depth issues and the numbers. We can bring them along slow and not force feed them, but give them a little bit at a time and let them be able to handle all the other things as well.
Q: When it comes to Miles Sanders - with Mark Allen, Saquon Barkley and Andre Robinson, how has he been able to fit into that group, not only on the field but off as well.
Huff: One of the good things was that Miles committed to us pretty early in the process so he got a chance to build that relationship very early. He came up for games, he came up for practices, so he got a chance to be around those guys very early. From the off the field perspective, he got a chance to get along with those guys and they got a chance to see his personality and open up to him.
When he got on the field, this summer he did an unbelievable job in the weight room so they saw the way that he worked and he earned their respect by working up to their standard. The one thing that he did not do was that he did not come in with an, 'I'm a five star, I'm the number one running back in the country get out of my way' approach, he came in and said, 'hey I want to work at the level and the standard that you guys set and I want to be accepted in that standard.' I think that helped the transition.
Sometimes kids are highly rated and recruiting is pumping these kids up and then sometimes they get to camp and they kind of have the 'I'm the number one running back, I'm a five star' type of attitude and it rubs some players wrong. None of the guys that we have in our program had that, which makes it a lot easier for the guys to accept guys who say, 'I want to be the best but I also know that you guys work at a certain standard so I want to be able to keep up with that standard.'
Q: With Saquon, where is he better than he was this time last year? He's talked about making little changes and becoming better at certain things and what's he like to watch film with?
Huff: I think just being a year older he's better. Just having seen some things on the field that you can't always replicate in practice. The speed of how the safety moves, the speed of how the backers blitz, some keys and tips that normal defenses have when they're blitzing and when they're not blitzing, depth of safeties. Seeing that for a year, of course, he's a year older. In high school not every defense on every team gets as extensive as they do in college so he didn't see everything but being a year older he saw that.
I think he worked his tail off this offseason at the fundamentals of the position, keeping his shoulders square, trying to eliminate some of the extra cuts, getting vertical. He worked his tail off on his pass pro, which he came out of last year and said he has got to get better. He understands the game better, the areas of the field, the importance of the down and distance and how doing something a little extra on first down may eliminate third down and all of those things that we talk about in our summer RB school to kind of help these guys understand the game on a deeper level. All of that helps.
The other part, would be just mentally being able to know our program, how our schedule works throughout the summer, throughout the spring and the winter and into the season. Watching film with him, he wants to know like the quarterback does. He wants to know the routes that the wide receivers are running and what concept they are running and why. He's always asking what's the quarterback's read on this or what's the quarterback looking at or when is he going to come to the field or the boundary. He wants to know. I preach to those guys that a smarter player is a better player. He is becoming a smarter player and a smarter play is not just, 'hey I know the plays,' but do you know the situation, what are defenses trying to do in this situation. What are the tendencies and how to do you pick up tendencies - those are some of the things we went through this summer. What coverages and what coverage based teams do and why, what's the difference between one team playing cover four and another team playing cover four and why.
This summer he really dove into that and hopefully it pays off and he'll be able to play a step faster. I tell those guys, if you can get more information before the ball snaps, you're playing much faster. When you're playing much faster you're going to put yourself in position to make bigger plays. Bigger plays lead to more yards and more yards lead to more points and everybody's happy. It makes it a lot easier if you know things before they happen.
Q: What's the punter situation with Blake Gillikin and Daniel Pasquariello?
Huff: The first week of camp we talked to those guys and we said it's going to be a true competition. For the first two and a half weeks, you could have closed your eyes and picked a punter between Blake, Danny [Pasquariello] and [Chris] Gulla. The thing, that as it went on, was the consistency. Blake was consistent in all three phases. All the other guys had some really good, strong parts, but overall in distance, location and hang time, Blake over the course of camp, proved to be the most consistent and it wasn't a landslide.
I'd probably say the best thing that happened to our special teams this summer was signing the two youngers guys. Not from a, 'hey they are going to come in and be the starter and carry coach off the field winning a national championship,' but it was more from a pure competition standpoint. Every day those guys were having to go out and compete and that's no different than at the running back position. We're a better running back unit because of Miles Sanders, because of Mark Allen, because of Andre, because all of those guys know when they get in the game, 'I've got to be on because there are three guys standing behind me that when they get in here, they're going to be on.' That's kind of been spread across our team, the numbers and being able to compete.
At the college level, to me and from my experience, there's only two things that motivate people in general. One is money and well, we can't pay them here. So if you go to the NFL and you want to get money, you produce. That motivates you. The second thing is competition, the true competitors in life will compete and if you put somebody beside a competitor and they are ready to race, they are going to compete and they are going to line up again until they win. Those two things are true motivators and we can't pay players. So how do we do it, we recruit competition.
The same thing at punter. Those guys had some great things and flashes of greatness during the year and there were some times they were very inconsistent. The way that we kind of improved that was to bring in guys who compete so now you've forced them to be consistent. I think those two younger guys coming in - Blake really took the punter unit and took it to a whole different level. The same thing with [Alex] Barbir with the kickers, he took it to a whole different level because now you're sitting here saying, 'If I want to play, I have to compete,' and I think that's what really happened this camp. Now of course we have to translate it. I told these guys that we have to take a short half mile walk to Beaver Stadium and do the same thing we do over here at Lasch.