Penn State head coach James Franklin likes watching his opponent's coaching staff sweat whenever they see K.J. Hamler back to receive a kickoff and DeAndre Thompkins downfield awaiting a punt.
Hamler and Thompkins are two of the most dynamic returners in the nation thus far with each player ranking eighth in FBS – Hamler with a 35.4-yard average on kickoffs, Thompkins with a 21.5-yard average on punts.
Hamler returned his first punt last Saturday against Kent State, and zigged and zagged for 33 yards.
"Our return game is more explosive right now," Franklin said earlier this week. "We have some guys that scare defensive coordinators, scare special teams coordinators and get everybody in the stadium sitting on the edge of their seats."
The return game is the highlight of the Nittany Lions' special teams entering Friday night's game at Illinois. Punter Blake Gillikin has been a model of consistency, averaging 43.8 yards on 12 punts. The Lions use two true freshmen kickers, with Jake Pinegar currently 22 of 22 on extra points and Rafael Checa accounting for 10 touchbacks on his 24 kickoffs.
The kickoff coverage team has had issues, with a 100-yard touchdown return defending its first kickoff of the season and two successful onside kicks against it. But the unit has averaged 13.8 yards covering eight kickoffs since the TD.
"I think there's been some really good things and there's been a couple of disappointing things as well," special teams coordinator Phil Galiano said Thursday. "I would assess it as, not as consistent as we'd like it to be.
"The kickoff return for a touchdown, when you go back and look at it, schematically we were kind of where we needed to be. We missed a couple of tackles and there were a bunch of young guys in there playing their first game. We've really improved since that rep."
The buzz, however, is with Hamler, a redshirt freshman, and Thompkins, a fifth-year senior whose average over the last two seasons is 14.9 yards on 30 punt returns with two touchdowns.
"He's super-fast, he's super-quick, he has the mind-set that there's no one that can stop him or tackle him," Galiano said of Hamler. "He is a great competitor and I think those are the things that make him special. God blessed him with a lot of ability that he's chosen to take advantage of.
"Our team sees what not only K.J. can do but what DeAndre can do when he has the ball in his hands. When you have a guy back there that your team believes in, they fight extra hard to try to hold their blocks longer and give that effort because they know at any point we can score."
Thompkins said the key to Penn State's successful return game is "having our full trust in the system.
"It's also having guys in the return game and also blocking for the returners who put 100 percent into it," he said. "With special teams, when we go out there we can score or deny points. So we view it as just as important as offense and defense."
The Nittany Lions will have their hands full with the special teams of Illinois, Punter Blake Hayes averages 46.1 yards and kicker Chase McLaughlin has kicked a field goal of 50 yards or longer in three straight games.
But Franklin hopes that his return men will be able to make some big plays and that the other components of special teams will continue to improve.