UNIVERSITY PARK — It wasn’t the offense that provided the spark for Penn State on a drenched Beaver Stadium field Saturday afternoon
Rather, it was a punt return from a guy who hadn’t returned a punt almost five years of college football.
Evan though he had no punt returns in a PSU jersey, Daequan Hardy looked like a seasoned veteran, so much so that he did it again in the second half.
Some of that, Hardy said, was because returning punts was nothing new to him. When he played at Penn Hills High School in the Pittsburgh area, punt returning was part of Hardy’s job. But after never fielding a punt in his college career, he became the first Penn State player ever to return two punts for a touchdown in a single game.
“That was the same guy that me and (associate head coach and cornerbacks coach) Terry (Smith) went to watch in a state championship game and earned a Penn State scholarship by how he performed all different ways,” PSU coach James Franklin said in his postgame presser. “That was awesome for us to have success with that tonight.”
The two punt returns, the first from 56 yards and the second from 68, came with a fair amount of shiftiness from Hardy. He made a nice double move on a couple UMass punt coverage players, and turned on the jets to score the first touchdown.
Hardy said his best-clocked 40-yard dash time was 4.32 seconds.
“When I got past the first level, I was just thinking, ‘Touchdown,’” he said.
Hardy’s two explosive bursts weren’t the only big plays for the punt return team. Regular punt returner Kaden Saunders also broke one for 37 yards.
Hardy, who has spent most of his Penn State career as a nickel corner, didn’t play the first two games of the season. Despite missing the West Virginia and Delaware games, he still had quietly made an impact through the last three games. He had an interception in both the Illinois and Northwestern games before exploding Saturday against the Minutemen.
Hardy also had a key pass break-up late in the first quarter Saturday on a Taisun Phommachanh pass to UMass wideout Anthony Simpson.
“He’s been a nickel for us for multiple years, and he’s really dominated that role,” Franklin said. “He’s starting to play a little more at corner now, and he’s shown the ability to do that.
“He showed tonight that he can be special.”
Now that he’s shown the ability to be explosive, it’s fair to wonder if this will be the norm from him for the rest of the season, or if he assumed the punt returner duties for the rest of the year
“I did this in high school, so it’s really nothing new to me,” Hardy said. “I’ve always been good with the ball in my hands. I’m just glad I got the opportunity to showcase it today.”