True freshman punter Blake Gillikin wasted little time making his mark on Penn State’s special teams in Saturday’s 33-13 season-opening win over Kent State. The Smyrna, Ga., native’s big leg helped pin the Golden Flashes deep all day, resulting in a 47-yard average on six attempts.
“Everybody talked about this summer, the way he was kicking the ball, it was clearly obvious to everybody that he had a chance,” James ranklin said following the game. “You never know til the games get going, you never know til practice gets serious, but he showed it, time after time after time.
“His locations could have been a little bit better today,” Franklin said. “He had one drop where I thought the nose of the ball was down [and]he didn’t get it off as cleanly as he would have liked to, but I think he can be better than what he even showed today.”
Gillikin, who turned down an offer from in-state Georgia, beat out incumbent Daniel Pasquariello for the starting job thanks to a strong preseason camp. Fellow true freshmen — running back Miles Sanders and right guard Connor McGovern — are the other two newcomers to shed their redshirts. The 6-foot-2, 182-pound Gillikin showcased impressive consistency and an ability to give his defense a much better starting field position than what it was typically used to the past two seasons. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Amani Oruwariye, whose 30-yard pick six broke the 13-13 tie and fueled a second-half surge, noted that having Gillikin back there made a huge difference.
“It makes it a lot easier,” Oruwariye said. “[Having a] shorter field makes it better for the offense, [it]makes us just wanna get a stop even more. It’s a big improvement that we’ve been working on.”
Franklin and special teams coordinator Charles Huff immediately noticed how Gillikin stood strong under pressure, and despite making his college debut in front of 94,000-plus fans, the Westminster School product delivered a standout performance. In fact, Franklin joked that Gillikin might have been too ready before the game.
“When we start our typical warmups, we do a sky punt right before we go in a run plays in the low red zone….and he knocked it like 12 yards out of the end zone,” Franklin said. “I was like, ‘Your leg’s a little live today. I understand that you’re excited about the game, so just make sure you understand that.’ I remember back playing quarterback, there were just some days my arm felt stronger than others, you get caught up in the moment, so I think same thing with Blake.”
Having a punter with the leg strength to flip the field on opponents, like his 58-yard bomb did, is a luxury the Nittany Lions haven’t had since Anthony Fera back in 2010-11. Gillikin saw the field a little more than most fans would have liked, as he trotted out six times following stalled drives for the offense, but getting No. 93 some extended experience before heading to Heinz Field next weekend can’t be counted out.
Though he’s only played one game in a Penn State uniform, Gillikin is already making quite the name for himself. There was even a student-section banner proclaiming Beaver Stadium to be “Gillikin’s Island.”