You could argue that the greatest single positional improvement that took place from 2015 to 2016 season was that of the punter. Mired by poor performance for the last two seasons, maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Merely having an average punter would have been an improvement. Evidence of this can be found in the level of excitement over punter commits leading up to signing day in January of 2016. After a year of punting duties being shared by Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla, Franklin and Co. were able to bring second highest rated punter recruit, Blake Gillikin, in from the Westminster School in Atlanta. It was amusing to see the excitement Penn State fans had for an elite talent at punter to take the field in the field – even if that excitement was warranted. And he didn’t let us down. In a year where Penn State’s special teams performed very well, Gillikin put forth an MVP worthy season.
Often it seems that the punter only gets noticed when they are struggling, but not this year. Gillikin finished his freshman season with a net average of 42.8 yards per punt, and pinned his opponents inside the 20 yard line 36.1% of the times he booted it. This was a major improvement from the 35.1 and 35.9 net averages from Gulla and Pasquariello in 2015. He had one punt blocked, and was by no means perfect, but Gillikin still provided a noticeable improvement upon past years as a true freshman. Going from a point where punting was a liability to where it was a non-factor (in a good way) and sometimes a weapon was a huge boost to Penn State’s special teams.
In an oft-overlooked play that proved crucial in Penn State’s magical season, Blake Gillikin showed his composure, awareness, and athleticism in a 3rd quarter play against Ohio State. With the ball snapped over his head and bouncing towards the end-zone, Gillikin raced back and was able to jump on the ball for a safety just moments before OSU could recover it for a touchdown. In the moment it sure didn’t feel like a positive play, but it’s impact on the scoreboard can’t be denied.
In addition to his heads-up play against Ohio State, Gillikin put his best foot forward in a Rose Bowl performance that earned him a spot on ESPN’s All-Bowl Team. Averaging 50.8 yards per punt on his five attempts, the true freshman had the third best punting performance in Rose Bowl history. It was also the third best performance by a punter in Penn State’s bowl game history. Aided by the Nittany Lions special teams coverage, Gillikin was able to limit the Trojans to a total of 19 yards on punt returns, effectively neutralizing one of their biggest threats to score.
Fans and coaches alike have no reason to worry this offseason about who will be handling punting duties next fall. The rising sophomore will continue to isolate opposing returners on Gillikin’s Island, and the only thing standing between him and another Special Teams MVP campaign is if Joe Moorhead’s offense even needs a punter in Year 2 (I kid).