Look at this photo. Think about what you see.
You see Sam Ficken, right? That’s him following through on a field goal in a game at Beaver Stadium against Ohio State back in 2014.
Now that I mention Ohio State and 2014, you probably also caught a gander of every Penn State fan’s favorite Big Ten referee, John O’Neill. And now you’re angry because O’Neill and his crew had a rough outing that October night. Sorry to ruin the start of your weekend (or make it, if you’re not a Penn State fan).
You’ve got the guy in the orange vest in the stands, nervous, his hands over his heads awaiting the result of that boot. You have Penn State’s renowned performance enhancement director, Dwight Galt, looking on eagerly. You have his assistant, the mustachioed Chuck Losey, playing it super cool. Maybe, you even see backup defensive tackle Tyrone Smith straining to get a peek at the field while star receiver Chris Godwin seems content to sit on the sideline and let the home crowd tell him how it all turned out.
Even in a shot where he’s practically front-and-center, I’m guessing Chris Gulla didn’t jump out at you. Because fans hardly ever notice the guy doing what he’s doing in a moment like this, unless he botches his part of the operation so badly it leads to a complete failure to execute. He’s getting none of the attention and he’s risking overwhelming blame with practically no chance for any of the credit.
That’s the life of the holder.
Know how difficult it is to find visual proof he even exists? I have an archive of thousands upon thousands of photographs at my disposal, and it took me 40 minutes to find a decent one with the holder even in it. And, his name isn’t even in the cutline, as if his presence wasn’t worth mentioning at all.
“It’s not like it’s not an important skill,” Penn State special teams coordinator Joe Lorig said earlier this week, “because when we go to kick a game winner, everybody in the stadium and myself and you guys know it’ll all be really important then.”
Penn State had a pretty good holder last season, Blake Gillikin. We know Gillikin was good because there was never a moment where anyone thought, “Gillikin really stinks at this.” If there are no mistakes, there is no attention. And if there’s no attention, that’s a good thing for the holder.
Gillikin graduated, though. And when Penn State released its spring depth chart last Saturday — on the day the Blue-White Game would have been played had it not been for the worldwide pandemic that has shut sports pretty much completely down — there was some interest in finding out which way Penn State might lean when it came to replacing him. After all, nobody currently on the roster has ever held in a game.
The answer led to a few more questions.
Listed as the first team holder: Jordan Stout, and that makes some sense. Gillikin was the punter last year. Stout is expected to be the punter whenever this season resumes. Some teams use backup quarterbacks (Penn State used its third-stringer, Billy Fessler, for a few years). Some teams use backup kickers. Penn State famously used receiver Joe Nastasi in 1995, to a legendary result against Michigan. Most often, though, the holder is the punter.
“The advantage to using a specialist is that’s all those guys do, all the time, during practice,” Lorig explained. “So, if it’s a quarterback, he might do it in 10 minutes before practice, but then he goes and focuses on being a quarterback — which I think we all would like him to do, myself included. If it’s a specialist, that’s all they do every day for two hours is work on their special, unique skill set.”
But, Stout isn’t your average punter. He’s also Penn State’s kickoff guy (one of the best in the country). Last season, he also teamed with Jake Pinegar to give the Nittany Lions one of the most successful field goal-kicking units in the nation. Combined, they were 13 for 15 on field goal attempts last season. Pinegar was 11 for 12, all inside 50. Stout was 2 for 3, all beyond 50. The tag team worked, and it didn’t necessarily seem as if Penn State would need to consider changing that formula in 2020.
Two things about holders before we move on: One is that holders have to be trusted. The other is that you rarely see teams switch holders.
I asked Lorig during his video conference earlier this week if Stout was a legitimate candidate to be a holder, even if he has responsibilities in the field-goal kicking game, and Lorig answered how you’d expect: “For me, I’m really simple,” he said. “You know how I develop a holder? I ask the kicker who he wants, because the number one thing is that they are comfortable with that guy.
“You saw Jordan was listed (as the first-team holder on the depth chart) the other day. Well, that’s because I asked Jake (Pinegar), ‘Obviously we wanted spring and we all know that, but if we went out tomorrow, who would you want to hold?’ And he immediately said, ‘Jordan.’ So, that’s my answer.”
Lorig said he didn’t want to get into the ins and outs of what differentiates a good holder from an OK one. “I think that will get boring for you guys,” he said. And, maybe he’s right. But the fact of the matter is, this is an important position that might be easily filled, but might on this occasion have to be filled by two different players.
If there was a 35-yard field goal that needed to be kicked today, Lorig confirmed it would be Stout holding for Pinegar.
If it was a 55-yard field goal that needed to be kicked? It becomes a bit cloudy from there. Maybe, it would be backup longsnapper Joe Calcagno, or backup punter and former Lackawanna College standout Bradley King holding for King. Maybe, someone else. Maybe, it will be Pinegar kicking all the field goals, regardless of distance; Lorig hinted that’s a possibility.
Either way, it could be holder by rotation in Happy Valley the next time there’s football.
“We’ll have a guy, and we’ll have a competent guy,” Lorig said. “Who that is today, honestly without spring, I can’t say it.”
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT