Through the first two games of its 2017 season, Penn State has again seen a climb in its special teams performances.
Led by dynamic punt return man DeAndre Thompkins, the Nittany Lions have climbed to No. 10 nationally for the category with 20.13 yards per attempt, up from No. 93 and 6.47 a year ago. Kickoff returns are up to No. 39 from 87 last year. Punt return defense is good for No. 6 nationally at an average of 0.0 yards allowed per return, and behind the leg of Blake Gillikin, net punting has gone from 37.81 to 42.38 yards per attempt.
To Gillikin, though, punting numbers aren’t significant or indicative of performance.
Rather, regardless of where the Nittany Lions’ are on the field, when faced with a punting situation his goal is simply to put his opponents as close to their goalline as he possibly can.
“I think in my mind, I don't try to pay attention to the statistics a lot. I think those can be kind of misleading,” said Gillikin. “I think my goal every game is to put our defense in the best position to be successful. So if that means we're punting from the 40-yard line every time, I'm trying to pin it deep. Or if that means punting from the 20-yard line and trying to flip the field, I'm just trying to give the defense as much room as I can so that they can make plays and they can get the ball back to our offense.”
Per Gillikin’s own standards, his rate of success has been high early this season.
In a 33-14 win against Pitt on Saturday in which head coach James Franklin described his Nittany Lions’ special teams as having an especially big impact, Gillikin was hot.
On his first attempt from Penn State’s own 45-yard line, the sophomore pinned the Panthers to their own 9-yard line. In the second quarter, his punt from his own 33-yard line put the Panthers to their own 16. Again before the end of the first half, he went from the Lions’ own 36-yard line to the Panthers’ 13.
“I think obviously, you guys know how happy we were with Blake Gillikin last year, but now the combination of Blake Gillikin with our coverage team, with Tyler Davis and our coverage teams, that I think we have a chance to be really good,” said Franklin.
Gillikin, of course, wasn’t finished.
In the second half, Gillikin opened with a punt that left the Panthers to start at their own 5-yard line. And finally, with the Panthers searching for any possible opportunity to overcome a 14-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, his punt to pin the visitors to their own 4-yard line set up Marcus Allen’s safety and effectively ended the game.
A highly recruited kicking specialist before arriving at Penn State, Gillikin’s early performances in his second-year have not come by accident. Rather, as special teams captain Nick Scott acknowledged on Saturday following the game, the positive early results are a product of the hard work Penn State’s kickers and special teams units put into their responsibilities.
“He's a huge asset. He's talented, but with his talent, he's always working on punting. Not just during practice, but you'll show up early or leave late and you'll see Blake out on the field taking punts; the same thing with Tyler Davis,” said Gillikin. “Those guys, they don't take an easy ride just being on the team and being specialists like you see some other places. These guys work and bust their tail just as hard as we do. They have all the respect of every guy in our room and I think they just ride on that, their hard work and their dedication, and they're honestly doing a great job.”
For the afternoon, that meant six attempts for a total of 259 yards punting with a long of 49 and, much more important to Gillikin, four punts pinning the Panthers inside their own 20-yard line.
Said Gillikin, “Obviously it's a great statistic to have a huge average, a 50-yard average or whatever, but I think the most important thing to me is to pin the opponent as close to their goal line as possible so our defense has a really good shot at getting a stop.”