It isn’t just the expert ball placement or the height the ball reaches when it booms off his right foot that makes Blake Gillikin one of the most important weapons on Penn State’s defense as a punter.
It’s the incredible consistency he’s shown through his college career that makes opponents start to cringe.
“The specialist game in college is all about consistency,” Gillikin said. “I think a big part of it is that I do kind of prepare. Having a plan and working at it is going to help you over time.”
It didn’t take Gillikin much time to make his mark at Penn State.
A kicker and punter in high school at Westminster, Gillikin helped win a Georgia Class 3A state championship by kicking three field goals in the state title game, including a 53-yarder — and added two 60-yard punts in the finals to boot.
When he arrived at Penn State in 2016, Gillikin immediately resurrected a Lions punting game that had been spotty, if not shoddy, since the start of the decade.
His 42.8-yard average on 61 punts not only earned him a spot on the ESPN.com True Freshman All-America team that season, but made him a candidate for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter.
As a sophomore last season, Gillikin was even better, averaging 43.2 yards on 52 punts — the fourth-best average for a season in Penn State history which put him at No. 2 in the Lions career record books with an average of 43.0. He’s hit 27 punts 50 or more yards during his first two seasons, including a career-long 69-yarder as a freshman.
But the distance for Gillikin takes a back seat to direction.
Entering his junior year, Gillikin has put a whopping 48 of his 113 punts, or 42 percent, inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Most telling is Gillikin’s uncanny ability to push opposing offenses even further back, has he’s placed 25 punts inside the 10-yard line.
That’s even more impressive, considering the nasty elements he’s had to face — from freezing Wisconsin weather to windy Northwestern outside of Chicago.
“The 10-yard line is really the goal,” Gillikin said. “Conditions play a big role in it, obviously. The Big Ten’s known for wind and cold conditions. A big part of it is direction. If you can pin a guy toward the sideline, it dictates what he can do with the return. I pride myself in dropping punts to pin opponents deep in their own end. That’s kind of the nature of my job here.
“It fires me up when I do that.”
Gillikin is quite capable of firing off other kinds of kicks.
A member of Westminster’s 2013 state championship soccer team and a two-year letter winner playing high school basketball, Gillikin is certainly capable of handling college kicking duties — an area where Penn State is auditioning new guys after the graduation of Tyler Davis.
But mainly because Gillikin’s been so valuable as a punter, he’s not in the mix for the Penn State kicking job. Instead, he’ll also be working as a holder for the new placekicker and lending some advice to a group of newcomers battling for the job — Jake Pinegar, Rafael Checa, Vlad Hilling and Justin Tobin — along with Carson Landis.
“Obviously, it’s a lot of pressure,” Gillikin said, “kicking in front of 107,000 people every Saturday. We try to make practice as competitive as possible — when you miss field goals, the team runs. It’s just guys like myself and everyone in the kicking groups helping them out, explaining situations to them.
”Kicking through the goal posts is different than kicking into the open field,” Gillikin continued. “Whenever you can get more reps, it can help you with consistency. I feel pretty confident holding for the new kickers right now.”
Most of all, though, Gillikin has given Penn State confidence that kicking the ball away on fourth down more often leads to a show of strength, rather than a sign of surrender, while lifting the punting game to new heights.
“I’d like to think I have,” Gillikin said. “I pride myself in being able to be as consistant as possible.”
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski