Football Preview | Playing time begins with special teams


For underclassmen, the path to get into the starting lineup goes through special teams units




Don’t expect to see many freshmen taking snaps for the Penn football team this year.

There are no rookies listed on the Quakers’ two-deep depth chart for the opener against Lafayette — even highly touted wideout recruit Cameron Countryman doesn’t appear among the top six receivers.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t see any first-years on the field.

When integrating new players into the team, coach Al Bagnoli and the Penn coaching staff employ a system which includes a freshmen-only drill called “Minutemen,” junior varsity games and, as far as varsity playing time goes, special teams reps.

Unlike most Division I programs, Ivy League schools are not allowed to redshirt freshmen (except in cases of injury). Therefore, a team like Penn has to “maximize all four years,” as Bagnoli explained.

“We don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Hey, we’ll redshirt you and we’ll worry about the next four years when they come,’” he said. “We have to make a pretty concerted effort to try to do some of that stuff.”

That’s how junior Joey Grosso has gradually worked his way into the Red and Blue’s lineup.

The 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker, who is expected to see time in the defensive rotation, appeared in one game as a freshman and all 10 as a sophomore on special teams.

“Every time I got on the field, I just went as hard as I could and tried to make a play,” Grosso said. “I wasn’t out there on defense, so I had to make my mark on special teams, which is a big part of the game.”

Finishing the year with nine tackles, he also returned two kickoffs for 22 yards.

“Coming in as a freshman, the main goal … is to get yourself on the traveling bus,” Grosso said. “The way you do that is to go as hard as you can at all times so you can get yourself on some special teams unit.”

For those who can’t get on the traveling bus, Bagnoli said he will sometimes use a special teams group specifically for home games, as the number of players a squad can bring on the road is limited.

“They may not travel, but at home, they’re half of your kickoff team, or half of your punt return or something else,” Bagnoli explained. “We try to be as inclusive as we can.”

And that experience can be crucial, since it’s really not possible to simulate all aspects of the game in practice.

“It’s a lot different out there,” Grosso said. “Just seeing everybody in the stands, being actually on the field playing against a different person rather than just the other-colored jerseys.”

In addition to Grosso, defensive players like sophomores Kyle Wilcox, Drew Harris, Dan Davis and others have taken the same special teams route.

“They were special teams guys and they’re taking the next step,” Bagnoli said. “They got a little taste on the varsity field and they can take the next step and move up from there.”

And the process all began freshman year.

“It’s an important component,” Bagnoli said. “Those young guys, we value [them].

“They’re just not here as designated look-team guys. … We really go out of our way to really try to enhance what we do with them and really try to get them better.”

SEE ALSO

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Penn football awaits familiar foe in Lafayette
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Football Preview: Marsh, Scott return to action this weekend
Football Preview: Experience boosts O-line confidence
Football Preview: Breaking down the depth chart
Football Preview: Ivy League full of talented wideouts

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