When Joe Lorig takes a new job, there are two things he tries to do before putting his nameplate on his desk.
One is to ignore statistics. The other is to leave all preconceived ideas about what had to go wrong or what could have gone better that necessitated a change in the first place.
It might have been more difficult to do at Penn State than anywhere else he could have gone as a special teams coordinator, because Penn State’s special teams woes during the 2018 season were so public, the numbers so striking.
But when he replaced the departed Phil Galiano as the Nittany Lions’ special teams boss last month, the little trick the veteran assistant uses to remind himself potential is more important than the past became even more important.
Bad as things went for Penn State in the kicking and return games last season, he still said the talent is there for the same group to push the Nittany Lions over the top in 2019.
“The fastest way you can improve as a football team is in your special teams unit,” Lorig said confidently. “That’s the fastest, easiest thing to improve. Especially in a place like this.”
With spring practices in full swing in Happy Valley, Lorig is only beginning to install his overhaul of how special teams units are put together.
Even in the early stages, though, he said he is upbeat with both the special teamers’ accountability and talent.
Kick return man K.J. Hamler showed flashes of brilliance early in the season, but he didn’t have a return longer than 29 yards in any of Penn State’s last five games. Freshman kickoff man Rafael Checa struggled to consistently keep his kickoffs in bounds, routinely handing solid field position to opponents, and freshman placekicker Jake Pinegar missed a field goal in six different games, including a pair in the tight Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky in January.
In the weeks following his arrival at Penn State, Lorig said he spent “too many” hours watching film, noticing trends that ranked as equal parts disturbing, but repairable.
“There were some things like balls being kicked out-of-bounds. Like, six balls kicked out of bounds on kickoff,” Lorig said, his voice rising. “There were missed field goals, and almost all of them were on the exact same spot on the field from the right hash. There were some things that stuck out, some issues of giving up a kickoff for a touchdown return, things like that.
“But I saw a lot of really talented guys that play really hard, and if you have that, you can build a culture that I’m talking about pretty easily.”
Penn State has the most important factor needed to improve special teams quickly: A head coach dedicated to it, Lorig said. Head coach James Franklin is said to support the philosophy his one-time roommate during their days as assistants at Idaho State in 1999 plans to implement.
One change he wants to make: Individualized meetings for special teams units, which Lorig said is rarely done in the college ranks.
“My mantra is ‘change the game,’ ” Lorig said. “You’ll see ‘CTG’ on things around here. It’s a trademark that I have. Special teams is going to impact the game every game either positively or negatively. Clearly, we want to have the positive side. But what we’re going to do, and I’ve done it at multiple places, is create a culture. That’s the biggest difference.”