Blake Gillikin can break down a punter’s mechanics like a golf swing. His own spiraling bombs? They’re a thing of beauty.
“Punting’s an art, so obviously you have different nuances that work for different people,” Gillikin said. “I can pretty much look at a punter and see what he’s doing with his drop, what he’s doing with his leg, and what the ball flight will be based on that.”
The Peach State sophomore from Smyrna was a revelation for Penn State’s special teams last season. He took a position that had long been a liability for the Nittany Lions and turned it into an immediate strength, setting the program’s freshman season record for average yards per punt in the process.
Gillikin’s 42.8 yards per attempt in 2016 ranked third in the Big Ten, but the Schreyer Honors College student, who earned a 4.0 GPA his first fall semester, has bigger plans on the horizon. “My goal is to be the best punter in the country every year,” he said.
After Wednesday’s practice, Gillikin mentioned he’s been focusing on explosion-based exercises in the weight room like box jumps and the hang clean. He’s gone from 180 to 200 pounds since arriving on campus last summer, making sure not to forget about arm day. On the practice field, Gillikin has been busy working on the location of his punts with alignment drills and building a rapport with new long snapper Kyle Vasey.
“Everything about my job is consistency,” Gillikin said. “If you can’t be consistent, you can’t really be successful as a punter.”
He’s competing with backup quarterback Billy Fessler for the starting holder job and has kept his kicking leg fresh this spring in case he’s ever asked to pull double duty. “Further down the line, junior and senior year, maybe that’s an option for me,” Gillikin said. After all, he hit a 53-yard field goal in front of 10,000 fans at the Georgia Dome during Westminster’s class AAA state championship victory in 2015.
First and foremost, Gillikin prides himself on being an athlete. When an errant snap sailed over his head during the third quarter against Ohio State, Gillikin raced nearly 20 yards into the end zone to limit the damage to a safety and keep the Nittany Lions within two scores, 21-7.
“Playing three sports in high school, obviously I was really comfortable with a bunch of different situations. With the bad snaps, part of it is just instinct,” Gillikin said. “Ultimately, my goal is to help the defense out the best I can. If I’m helping those guys be successful, then I’m doing my job.”
He highlighted Los Angeles Rams All-Pro Johnny Hekker as a punter he looks up to in the NFL. “He kinda has the same style as me. He’s a long guy, he does everything with the ball that I want to do,” Gillikin said. “He’s a traditional punter, he drops the nose when he wants to put it inside the 10.”
Gillikin classifies himself as a straight-on, American-style punter who has the flexibility to extend upward and drive his leg through the ball. With a full offseason in the strength and conditioning program, Gillikin is primed to break his career-long 69-yarder at Pitt.
His brother Tyler is a redshirt freshman long snapper at Northwestern, meaning the Gillikins can enjoy a de facto family reunion in Evanston on Oct. 10 when Penn State comes to town.