STATE COLLEGE — DeAndre Thompkins looked upward at the football just punted his way, spiraling down toward him, sliding through the raindrops his eyes tried to avoid.
He hauled in that first-quarter punt Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium deftly, not an easy task, given either the conditions or the fact that 10 defenders were sprinting downfield at him, trying to knock him off his feet and that slippery football from his arms. With that ball secured as best he could, his head finally angled downward, and he noticed a reserve linebacker and special teams ace, sophomore John Lako, carefully approaching.
Too carefully, Thompkins realized.
That’s when his eyes got big.
Penn State’s speedy receiver-turned-punt return man juked Lako, sprinted to his left, turned the corner and would ultimately split two defenders on his way to a rousing 61-yard touchdown and the No. 6 Nittany Lions’ unlikely first touchdown of the season in what became a 52-0 romp over Akron in the soggy season opener.
It also goes down as the first reminder, he and his coaches said, that Penn State plans to be just a bit different this season in a facet of the game they believe can put them over the top as a championship contender.
“My redshirt freshman year (2015), against Buffalo, I had a big return (a 58-yarder),” Thompkins said. “Ever since then, throughout this program, that has always been something that has been talked about. ‘Put him in there, he’s going to break one.’
“I’ve always believed that, as soon as I catch one, I can go.”
Of course, it hasn’t been that easy for Thompkins, who came to Penn State as a four-star recruit in the class of 2014 with designs on making an immediate impact in the return game. Nor has it been that easy for Penn State, which, even in its run to the Big Ten Championship in 2016, couldn’t end its longtime search for game-breaking return men.
Before Thompkins’ 61-yard scoring return, the last Penn State player to bring a punt back for a score came nine years ago at Wisconsin, when Derrick Williams did it. The last one at Beaver Stadium came a decade ago, and again it was Williams, with a dramatic return for a touchdown that stole the momentum against Notre Dame.
Looking to be aggressive: On Saturday, Thompkins also ripped off a 42-yard return, and despite leading, 35-0, Penn State sent star running back Saquon Barkley back deep to return the only kickoff Akron had all afternoon. It was a not-so-veiled sign the Nittany Lions coaching staff will at least attempt to eschew the careful approach it took to kick and punt returns in years past, when they deferred to better directional punters and kickers and faster coverage men, sacrificing the potential for big plays to ensure possession.
“We want to be aggressive,” Franklin said. “We want to make great decisions, but then be aggressive in all three phases and I thought DeAndre [Thompkins] showed that today. Obviously for us, it’s been an area that’s probably been magnified that we haven’t been as explosive or as productive as we’d like to be.”
Franklin said his assistant coaches have asked a favor of him: Ignore the occasional mistake and allow gifted return men like Thompkins to feel like they can be aggressive. Franklin is trying to oblige, and at least against Akron, Thompkins’ aggression paid off for the team, as his touchdown return came on a punt that typically would have been fair caught.
“It’s always exciting to gain the trust of your head coach,” Thompkins said. “I just want to go out and prove the best in myself. When that comes out, it is gratifying.”