Penn State's 'gifted' unsung football hero among nation's best-kept secrets

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State junior Blake Gillikin is among the best punters in college football.
  • Of 12 punts this season, five were pinned inside the 20-yard line, while four went 50-plus yards.
  • Gillikin is also an Academic All-Big Ten honoree with a 4.0 grade-point average.

Blake Gillikin remembers students crowding Saquon Barkley last fall, taking selfies and turning a 10-minute walk into a half-hour trek.

Penn State's Blake Gillikin has become one of the top punters in the nation.

Gillikin doesn’t garner that same attention.

His long blonde locks and team-issued, name-tagged backpack are dead giveaways — but outside of the occasional picture, Penn State’s punter is more normal student than star football player.

“I like to be more low-key than that,” Gillikin said with a laugh, referring to Barkley.

In fact, Gillikin might still be the best-kept secret in the Big Ten. Even if he is one of the best punters in the country.

Gillikin — maybe the only Penn State player with better job security than Trace McSorley — has been a “weapon” for the Nittany Lions in 2018, according to head coach James Franklin. The junior has 12 punts this season; five of them pinned inside the 20-yard line, while four went 50-plus yards. At Pitt alone, Gillikin had three land inside the 10 — dealing with wind and rain, no less.

“Blake is extremely special. He’s the best college punter I’ve ever worked with,” Penn State special teams coordinator Phil Galiano said. “He’s super talented, and we appreciate him.”

Added fifth-year senior running back Mark Allen: “The kid has a 4.0 (GPA). Never got an A-minus in his life and punts the ball about 60 yards. We give him credit.”

The stats: Gillikin’s 2018 success shouldn’t come as a surprise. As a sophomore last season, the Georgia native was one of the nation’s most effective punters. Bolstered by 18 punts downed inside the 10-yard line, Gillikin boasted the fourth-best coffin wedge average (89.84) in college football, according to GPR Punt Rating, which likens itself to a QB rating for punters. He also stood out in another recently created statistic.

Florida Atlantic University’s college of business tracks a new punting stat called “boom rating” — which takes net yards per kick, line of scrimmage and proximity to each end zone, among other factors, into consideration. In 2017, Gillikin’s rating ranked fifth in the country behind Texas’ Michael Dickson, Texas A&M’s Shane Tripucka, Alabama’s JK Scott and Georgia’s Cam Nizialek. Dickson and Scott are now starting for the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, respectively.

Gillikin has shown up on the “boom rating” radar this year, too. He had the third-highest mark in Week 2 after his game-changing performance at Pitt. In Penn State’s 51-6 win, a contest closer in the first three quarters than the final score indicated, Gillikin had five punts. Four were downed at or inside the 15-yard line — at the 4, 9, 10 and 15. The Nittany Lions’ average starting field position was their 44-yard line. Pitt’s was its own 25.

Now, if you look at traditional punting numbers, Gillikin’s campaign so far might not seem that impressive. His 43.8 yards per punt would be a Penn State single-season record. But it ranks fifth in the Big Ten and 23rd nationally.

All those coffin corner punts negatively affect his traditional punting average. But it’s become his calling card.

“Watching Blake, man, Blake is just gifted at what he does,” Penn State punt returner DeAndre Thompkins said. “What you guys see in the game is just a fraction of what he can do at practice. Putting the ball inside the 5 consistently is something a lot of people can’t do. For him, it’s just a clock-in, clock-out type of thing. It’s his job, so he does it.”

The leadership: Gillikin — an Academic All-Big Ten honoree who has recorded a 4.0 GPA every semester of his collegiate career — has, in his words, “gone about my business the same” since being named a captain in the offseason.

But there is added expectation that comes with being picked by peers as a team leader. And with true freshmen Jake Pinegar and Rafael Checa starting at placekicker and kickoff specialist, respectively, the junior has embraced that challenge.

“I try to take on a bigger presence with the team, recognizing that I’m not just the punter and the holder, but a team captain,” Gillikin said. “Recognizing that more people could be looking at me as a role model.”

Franklin called Gillikin “the model student-athlete in a lot of ways.” The coach said he and the assistants talk to not at the punter. “I’m asking Blake questions,” Franklin added. “I’m getting his perspective.”

That trust is extended to only a handful of players, like McSorley and senior safety Nick Scott, Gillikin’s fellow captains. Scott — who served as special teams captain in 2017 before taking the reins on defense — watched Gillikin grow. The former gunner said Gillikin is “an outlet and voice of encouragement” while still “laying the hammer” when younger players don’t live up to the set standard.

Galiano believes that guidance in invaluable. Pinegar, Checa, Vlad Hilling and Cade Pollard see Gillikin catch balls off the JUGs machine to work on his hand-eye coordination. They have heard about how he drives 150 miles from his hometown to Birmingham, Ala., to work with One On One Kicking specialist Mike McCabe during the offseason. And they know he talks to the punting expert weekly to help break down film.

Galiano called Gillikin “a leader” for possessing that kind of work ethic. McCabe — who has trained him for seven years now — knows the punter as a “perfectionist.”

“He expects the best out of his performance, to flip the field to win ballgames,” the guru said. “That’s his mindset.”

The future: Anyone who worried that Gillikin might leave early for the NFL can rest easy. He will more than likely stay through his senior year.

“Academics is a big deal for me,” the punter said. “And I really couldn’t see myself at this point leaving here before I graduate.”

But Gillikin has a future in professional football if he wants one. That, according to both Galiano and McCabe.

Galiano, a former Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers special teams assistant, believes Gillikin’s skill-set compares favorably to those in the league, citing Gillikin’s “God-given” leg strength, directional prowess and “unbelievable hands” that help with catching the ball clean and efficiently getting the kick cleared.

Meanwhile, McCabe has worked with some of the finest punters in the NFL’s recent history. He trained Super Bowl champions Pat McAfee and Ryan Allen and mentored Johnny Hekker (Los Angeles Rams), Matt Bosher (Atlanta Falcons), Marquette King (Denver Broncos) and Johnny Townsend (Oakland Raiders). McCabe understands better than almost anyone what it takes for a specialist to make it in the league — and he knows Gillikin has “NFL ability.”

“His potential is through the roof,” McCabe said. “You’d be insane not to draft a kid with the abilities that he has.”

Gillikin still thinks he has room to grow. In particular, the punter — who has allowed six total yards on four returns this year — wants to get a little more hangtime on his punts to eliminate potential explosive returns.

But for the most part, Gillikin is pleased with how he’s punted this season, and he should be. Gillikin helped the Nittany Lions dominate at Pitt and control the field position battle through three games.

And now that Penn State’s Big Ten slate is here — with games against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin on the horizon — expect the Nittany Lions’ underrated weapon to play a role in their College Football Playoff push.

“I thought Blake had a significant impact,” Franklin said days after beating Pitt. “We’re going to need him to be that way throughout the entire year.”