At first, Blake and Tyler Gillikin started their drills in the basement. The twin brothers would clear out enough room for Tyler to fire footballs back to Blake, who would then give them a light boot.
Before they became starting specialists at Big Ten schools that face each other on Saturday — Blake as Penn State’s punter and Tyler as Northwestern’s long snapper — they would hone their skills in the house.
“And I’d just want to kind of tap the ball,” Blake said. “Kind of get a spiral going, you know what I’m saying? And I’d hit the ceiling sometimes and scuff it. The ball leaves a pretty significant scuff mark on the ceiling.”
Oops. Well, lesson learned.
“So that kind of migrated (our practice) to our foyer outside our living room,” Blake said.
Not surprisingly, the same fate befell the ceiling and wall in that room, too. So when, say, a college coach would visit the suburban Atlanta home on a recruiting trip, there wasn’t much doubt that a punter lived there.
“I remember going to Blake’s house for the official visits,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “And there were scuff marks and holes all over the walls.”
“He walked in the front door, and they’re all over the ceiling on the left side,” Blake said. “There’s pretty much just brown scratches going for probably 10 feet. It’s all over the wall over there.
“I told my parents that I would paint the wall at some point. But I haven’t gotten around to it. I still have that promise in here,” he joked, patting his heart.
One imagines that mom and dad can forgive him now that all of those indoor practices helped land a scholarship to pay for college.
Blake has his brother to thank for helping him along the way. And yes, they did get to put work in on actual football fields, too. As seniors in high school in 2015, the snapper and punter helped the Westminster Schools to the Georgia Class 3A state championship.
“I’d say a brother punter-and-snapper combo is probably the best you can get, as far as that combination,” Blake said.
Saturday will be the first time they share a field together since high school when the Lions take on the Wildcats in Evanston. Blake will be taking his snaps from Wallenpaupack grad Kyle Vasey and Tyler will be snapping to Northwestern punter Hunter Niswander.
There was a point when the brothers might have ended up on the same team again. Northwestern was one of Blake’s final schools before Penn State won out in the end.
“Yeah, we recruited ‘em both. … Tyler trusted me more I guess, right?” joked Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald, who named Tyler his Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday. “Great family, and Tyler’s having a great start to his career. I’m really proud of him.”
“I visited both during the recruiting process,” Blake said. “Both head coaches care about their players a lot. I think Pat Fitzgerald is probably one of the better coaches in the NCAA. My brother was really attracted to him. He’s their special teams coordinator, actually. So I think that’s really a unique thing they have going there.”
It turned out to be a significant recruiting victory for the Lions, who had been glaringly inconsistent in the punting game from 2012-15. NCAA sanctions led to Penn State’s last standout at the position, Anthony Fera, to transfer to Texas. After that, special teams in general suffered because of slashed scholarship numbers.
So it didn’t take Blake long to win the starting job when he arrived in the summer of 2016. He proceeded to break the Penn State freshman season punting average record with 42.8 yards per punt. His career average is now up to 43 yards per kick, good for third in school history.
But Saturday will be the first time he gets to face his brother head-to-head on the field. The same goes for Lions reserve quarterback Billy Fessler, whose younger brother Charlie is a wide receiver for the Wildcats.
“We’ve got a couple of brother combos in the game, so kinda cool to have that type of opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “Big, big deal in those houses now. Holiday bragging rights, to say the least.”
To say nothing of the dilemma the parents face.
“I know talking to Mrs. Gillikin this week, she’s already got a jersey that’s been made that’s sewed in half,” Franklin said. “So she’s going to spend the first half on one sideline and the next half on the other one.”
As for her sons, Blake said they talk pretty frequently during the school year, with more conversations this week in particular.
“Nothing too bad,” Blake said with a grin. “No smack talk. Yet.”