When stepped on the football field during a summer camp as an eighth grader it didn t take long for then Toms River North (N.J.) head football coach to take notice.
A lot of incoming players would go to the camp and at the camp usually do a punt, pass and kick contest, LaBarca said. I saw him kick and right away was like, Wow. As a true freshman he came up to varsity and was our kicker. The funny thing is he was always a better kicker and had to work on the punting.
This season Penn State needs the walk-on specialist to become their punter. With former punter gone due to graduation, the Nittany Lions redshirted Gulla last season knowing this day was coming. Senior is still in line to maintain his kicking duties and while Gulla could inherit that role in the future, the redshirt freshman is the only punter on the roster. Penn State will add a handful of walk-on specialists this summer, but the punting job is one the Lions have been grooming Gulla for since his arrival last summer.
[Gulla s] still got some work to do. I ve been pleased with his attitude and approach, Penn State head coach said. I think Ficken has had a great spring so far. I think a lot of times we talk about the kickers but the snappers, the holders, [Ryan] Keiser s been really good at holding, so it s all of them together. I ve been very impressed with Ficken. Gulla still has got some work to do but I ve been pleased with him as well.
Franklin said earlier this spring that special teams is the area where the team can make the most gains, something that realistically will need to continue to be a practice focal point after the way the entire unit performed the last two seasons. From coverage and returns to the specialists themselves, Gulla will be one of the players to keep an eye on.
It s not uncommon for the punter to fly under the radar when examining any football team. Usually if they are getting the ball off well, recording decent hang time and the placement is up to snuff it s almost a good thing not to hear the punter s name called during a broadcast. Of course for every punt that gets blocked whether their fault or not and every shaky tackling attempt they go for as the last line of defense, the punters become more and more well known.
This spring Gulla hasn t always been the easiest to spot. His shoulder-length brown hair doesn t stick out of his helmet any more and even the kid s last name (pronounced Goo-lah) isn t one reporters and coaches have said correctly. He s one of the unknowns on the Penn State roster this spring, a walk-on who if he takes hold of the punting job as expected, would likely be a candidate to earn a scholarship this Fall.
He always wanted to go there, said LaBarca, who before getting into high school coaching played wide receiver at Penn State from 1989-93. Chris had his eye on Penn State and if it wasn t for the reduction in scholarships he probably would ve gotten one. If he is a starter I do believe, I think, that they d give him a scholarship. I d hope so.
I wouldn t be surprised if he s the kicker and the punter for them in the future.
Gulla hasn t been made available to the media so far this spring and per Penn State rules wasn t allowed to talk to the media as a freshman. But, Gulla s personality, along with his big leg, is something that his former coach still remembers.
The former soccer player transitioned into football in high school and even played baseball and lacrosse, where he became a goalie. Gulla wasn t afraid to try new sports and his outgoing personality caught LaBarca by surprise.
I went to a varsity basketball game at the school and there was someone dressed in the stands in a half white, half blue body suit with head all covered up, LaBarca recalled. I was wondering who is this guy? At halftime the guy walks up to me and says hi and I m like, Oh, it s Chris.
He s an outgoing kid. He said he used to wear that body suit to the Penn State games. He s just a funny guy, but he s really smart and he has the perfect mentality of a kicker because he s never nervous or afraid.
LaBarca said Gulla s self motivation is one of the biggest reasons why the specialist made his way to Penn State. After Gulla s first season of high school football one where he earned the kicking duties -- LaBarca said he noticed that his then young player began to take kicking more seriously. Gulla researched and attend different specialist camps across the country, helping him to create a practice routine and a set of warm-up exercises that he stuck with throughout high school.
He s the guy who wanted the game to come down to the last kick and he wasn t afraid of that, LaBarca said. He wanted to be out there when the game was on the line. I was surprised that more big-time schools didn t come give him scholarships.
He during his final two high school seasons, but Gulla s punting duties weren t needed right away. He was the place kicker for four years, but punted for probably about two years, maybe even just one, LaBarca said. The thought of Gulla seeing the field first in college because of his punting rather than his kicking is something that the former high school coach wouldn t have predicted.
At some point in the future and maybe as early as the 2015 season it could come down to Gulla holding both duties. For now, Franklin s team needs Gulla to master punting, something that he ll have the rest of spring and summer to continue figuring out.
Punting is something he just taught himself, LaBarca said. He got better and better at it. I actually think he s a better kicker, but he has a lot of value because he can do both.
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