Penn State earns verbal commitment from punter
The final number last season was 34.3 net yards per punt.
To put it another way, Penn State finished 106th in the nation in punting.
Even more plainly — in the Nittany Lions' losses to Michigan and Maryland, fourth-quarter punts of 29 and 37 yards, respectively, set those teams up at midfield and led to game-deciding field goals.
Punting matters. And for the first time since sanctions hit the program in 2012, the Lions are able to seriously address the problem.
Penn State secured a verbal commitment from one of the country's top-rated punters on Sunday when Atlanta's Blake Gillikin pledged to coach James Franklin.
Gillikin would be the first scholarship specialist to sign with Penn State since kicker Sam Ficken came aboard back in 2011. The Lions' last scholarship punter was Anthony Fera, who handled both punting and kicking duties back in 2011.
But Fera transferred to Texas when NCAA sanctions leveled the Lions the following summer and the Lions have badly struggled on punts ever since. Penn State used two freshman walk-ons in the role last season with Daniel Pasquariello ultimately taking over for Chris Gulla midway through the campaign.
Pasquariello and Robby Liebel were competing for the job in the spring.
"We took the approach, knowing the lack of scholarships, that we were going to be in a challenge in that area," Franklin said during spring practice. "But we were very, very aggressive of going out and recruiting guys that wanted to come and be a part of Penn State anyway. We were able to not only get numbers, but we were able to get quality.
"I mean, you look at what Gulla was able to do, Pasquariello last year — obviously all of us would like to see them have stronger years. But you're also talking about two young guys that came in, were able to get some experience."
Gillikin would arrive in 2016 along with an impressive resume.
Though the traditional recruiting services don't handle much in the way of specialists — Gillikin doesn't have a rating on any of the four major networks — other outlets focus specifically on punters and kickers.
One such site, Kohl's Kicking, ranks Gillikin as the nation's No. 4 punter for the 2016 class. At a national showcase in May, he averaged 43.3 yards per punt, placing him third among high school juniors at the competition. The Penn State record for single-season average is 43.6 yards.
Most notably, perhaps, is who else was vying for Gillikin's services.
The 6-foot-1 prospect from The Westminster School in metro Atlanta had recently received a scholarship offer not just from Penn State, but home-state power Georgia as well. The Bulldogs have a senior punter entrenched for 2015 but were firmly in the market for a new starter next fall.
Gillikin visited both campuses this month. But according to a Lions247 report, when he tried to make a return trip to State College along with his mother last week, bad weather canceled their connecting flight and the family never made it.
That seemed to be a significant blow to the Lions' chances, especially after Gillikin camped at Georgia this week and announced he would make a decision between Georgia, Penn State and Northwestern on the weekend.
In the end, Gillikin picked the Lions.
Gillikin becomes the 11th member of the 2016 recruiting class for the Lions, who would also like to add a scholarship kicker in the class. They have offered Quinn Nordin — rated by some services as the No. 1 kicker in the country — but will have to fight off another home-state school in Big Ten rival Michigan in that battle.