Punter Gillikin flipping field position for Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — As he walked off the field, Blake Gillikin glanced down at his left hand and shook his head in disgust. Thankfully, his feet hadn’t let him down.
The Penn State punter needed them to chase down a snap that glanced off his bandaged left thumb and bounced close to his team’s goal line. With more than 550 pounds of Indiana defenders bearing down on him, Gillikin scooped up the loose ball, accelerated to the right and booted a neat, unreturnable punt past midfield. Although officially a 22-yard net punt, Gillikin’s long right leg sent the ball on a 47-yard trajectory, preventing a big loss.
“The hidden yardage or the hidden parts of the game, a lot of people don’t see that,” special teams coordinator Charles Huff said.
Gillikin’s impacted those areas all season for the No. 9 Nittany Lions (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten, No. 8 CFP) who will face Rutgers (8-2, 0-7) and the nation’s busiest punter Michael Cintron on Saturday.
Averaging 41 yards per punt, Gillikin has dropped 17 of his 47 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, forced 15 fair catches and has seven kicks over 50 yards. More importantly, the Nittany Lions have won the field position battle in eight of their 10 games this season and are forcing opponents to drive at least 76 yards on average every time Gillikin punts.
“You see some of the punts he kicks and you’re like, ‘Wow,’” defensive tackle Curtis Cothran said. “You didn’t expect it to go that far but the ball just keeps sailing and keeps sailing.”
Plays like Gillikin’s scramble punt helped Penn State wrestle field position back from Indiana and primed a fourth-quarter comeback. They’re why James Franklin couldn’t wait to recruit a vaunted punter. But he had to wait until the NCAA restored the Nittany Lions to 85 scholarships in 2015. The wait included a 2-16 record in games where Penn State lost the field position battle.
Meanwhile, Franklin kept his eye on Gillikin, a three-sport athlete who was booting 50- and 60-yard punts in high school playoff games for Westminster High in Atlanta and had a twin brother who was a long snapper.
He quickly won the starting job previously shared by Chris Gulla and former Australian-rules footballer Daniel Pasquariello. It didn’t take long for Penn State players to notice Gillikin’s big leg. He usually warms up by lining his toes up on the goal line and blasting high, hanging punts out to the opposite 40.
“He was an outstanding soccer player,” Tyler Gillikin said. “And when we started football in high school, his leg was extremely strong. Blake’s always been the kicker.”
Now a long snapper for Northwestern, Tyler took up the skill as a way to get more playing time alongside his twin during their sophomore year of high school. They’ve combined for countless snaps, and misfires, over the years. Their grandfather sent Tyler the video of Blake mishandling the snap against Indiana last week for a laugh, but also for pride.
“That pretty much is in a nutshell what kind of athlete he is,” Tyler said.
His situational awareness was evident on arguably Penn State’s most consequential “hidden play” so far this season.
After a high snap whistled over his head against Ohio State, Gillikin hustled back across his goal line with Buckeyes in pursuit and collapsed on the ball to salvage a safety rather than let Ohio State score a touchdown. It was a 5-point swing in a game Penn State won by 4 to burst into Big Ten championship contention.
“You have an athlete where when in the game certain things don’t always got the way you planned or maybe not exactly what you said is going to happen — they don’t panic in those situations,” Huff said. “They allow themselves to still be in the moment, still be able to play and what happens is, you take a bad play and you don’t let it become a catastrophe.”