By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Just a little more than a year ago,
Penn State true freshman punter Blake Gillikin was busy leading his high school
football team to its first state championship since 1978.
In December 2015, Gillikin helped guide Westminster high school to comeback victory against Blessed Trinity in overtime in the Georgia High School Association's Class AAA championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Staring in nearly every kicking role in the state championship game, Gillikin converted on three field goals, including a 53-yarder, logged three punts of at least 58 yards with two sailing for 62 and 65 yards and placed six kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks.
Gillikin had already been committed to Penn State for five months prior to winning the state championship.
Penn State wasn't the automatic choice for Gillikin though, who hadn't even really considered Happy Valley until the Nittany Lion staff reached out to him.
"I always watched Penn State on TV, there's fantastic tradition," Gillikin said. "The jerseys, they are iconic, whenever you turn on the TV you see that blue stripe on the white helmet and it just reminds you of something bigger."
With his sights on something bigger, it was the entire university that drew the attention of the promising prospect, who ranked as high as second nationally in the South Region.
"Living in SEC country, I didn't really want to stay down south at all, so it was pretty much the perfect fit for me," Gillikin said.
Tradition and academic reputation weren't the only pieces of Penn State that sold Gillikin on his decision, as the electric Nittany Lion coaching staff was also a part of the process.
"It's definitely the energy that they bring every single day," Gillikin said. "Whether it's recruiting, on the field, off the field, especially coach Huff and coach Franklin who I interact with the most."
Perhaps one of the biggest pieces of Gillikin's decision to attend Penn State though, meant separating from his very first teammate, twin brother Tyler for the first time.
For Blake and Tyler though, it's actually something the two of them wanted. While Blake chose Penn State, Tyler was headed to Northwestern to join the Wildcats as a long snapper.
"It's been hard being away from him because we've always kind of been attached at the hip," Gillikin said with a smile.
Come Oct. 7, 2017 though, Blake and Tyler will meet for the first time ever on opposite teams, when the Nittany Lions travel to Northwestern for a Big Ten matchup at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.
"I'm really looking forward to that," Gillikin said, especially since we've always had that connection on the court and on the field every since we were growing up."
"My parents being student-athletes in college kind of pushed me to try to figure out how I could be the same way and I guess kicking is just the path that is the clearest for me"
It was a final trip to a Nittany Lion satellite camp in Atlanta that clinched the final decision for Gillikin.
"Having my mom being supportive at that point was a big deal to me, because my dad had really been the only one to visit," Gillikin said."
Drawing from parents Taryn and Walt, the student-athlete lifestyle is something Blake had always planned on, and their support in his decision meant everything.
"My parents being student-athletes in college kind of pushed me to try to figure out how I could be the same way and I guess kicking is just the path that is the clearest for me," Gillikin said.
Gillikin's parents both swam competitively in college, his mother on the team at Kansas and his father a member of the team at the University of North Carolina.
"Family is a really big part of my life, I only have two grandparents and two parents, I have one uncle and that's about it," Gillikin said. "I have a small family but I love them so much, they've been a huge part of my life so far."
In the summer of 2016, Gillikin was headed to Penn State for preseason camp, where he would immediately enter in to a tough competition for a starting role on the roster.
"Coming in, coach Huff told me off the bat that it was a competition, no one had won the job before they got here and coming in, Danny Pasquariello and Chris Gulla are great punters and I was just looking forward to coming out to camp and showing what I could do," Gillikin said.
A competitor at heart, Gillikin welcomed the challenge and got right work, making the most of his Nittany Lion debut and working toward his ultimate goal to earn the starting job in the season opener against Kent State.
Come September 3rd, it was Gillikin who had emerged with the starting job, gliding through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium on to the field prior to his very first opportunity as a Nittany Lion.
"It was the first drive," Gillikin said with a laugh. "I was praying that we were going to get a first down and it didn't happen so I was standing there shaking on the sideline, if I'm going to be honest. It was pretty nerve wracking. I had played in the state championship game, a big game, high stakes, but this was Kent State, obviously the first game of the season at home and I shouldn't have been that nervous, but I was trying prove myself."
Gillikin didn't exactly think he hit it that well, but when he looked up and saw his first collegiate boot spiraling high through the air, he thought it might turn out okay.
The 49-yard punt sailed to the Kent State 18-yard line only to be waived off for fair catch, greeted by the deafening roar of a cheering crowd in the stands at Beaver Stadium.
"Building off of that, I don't think I had the best game of my life, but I think starting out well kind of set the standard for me for the rest of the year, especially knowing what I could do on that first punt when I was literally shaking standing on the field, it kind of gave me more confidence as the season went on," Gillikin said.
In his collegiate debut, Gillikin averaged 47.0 yards per punt, which placed him fourth among freshmen in Penn State history and first among true freshman.
Just one piece of Penn State's significantly improved special teams unit, it didn't take long for Gillikin to build consistency, as he has continued flipping field position for the Nittany Lions on each impressive occasion. Just the third true freshman punter in program history since 1946, Gillikin is averaging 42.1 yards per punt, good for third in the conference standings.
He followed his Kent State debut with a career-long 69-yard punt at Pitt, which ranks second all-time among the longest punts by a Nittany Lion freshman - just one of 10 punts he has booted this year measuring at least 50 yards.
When asked about the key to his calm demeanor, Gillikin is quick to direct all credit for his seemingly seasoned confidence to long snapper Tyler Yazujian.
"Yaz has been a key component in my confidence because just knowing the ball is always going to be there - we had that one mishap against Ohio State, but I wouldn't really blame that on him because the conditions were pretty tough," Gillikin said.
For Gillikin, the steadiness from the veteran fifth-year senior has made all the difference in not just his performance on the field, but in the entire transition from high school to the collegiate game.
"He was my roommate in camp, he is my roommate on every road trip, every home game, he has just helped calm me down when I've been high or low, like every true freshman is," Gillikin said.
The road hasn't been perfect, but Gillikin has handled the ups and downs of his true freshman season without panic, dazzling fans with his spot-on placement and eye-opening hang time, with just a few challenging situations along the way.
First there was Ohio State, where an errant snap sent Gillikin scrambling to the end zone with the Buckeyes barreling toward him before falling on the ball for the safety.
"There were a lot of things going through my mind as you could imagine," Gillikin said. "Thankfully the guy who was running behind me didn't get there before I did but I was praying that I wasn't about to get smacked when I fell on the ball," Gillikin said.
For special teams coordinator and running backs coach Charles Huff, Gillikin's decision making resulted in a pivotal play for the Nittany Lions, who engineered one of the most impressive comebacks of the season, knocking off the Buckeyes in front of a Penn State White Out crowd of more than 107,000.
"if you think back on it, Ohio State missed an extra point," Huff said. "So then we give up the safety, but the safety only counts as one point at that time. The hidden yardage or the hidden parts of the game, a lot of people don't see that. Now if you give up a touchdown, that's five points, that's totally different."
For Huff, Gillikin's unique ability to be still in the moment, is exactly what the Nittany Lions have been searching for in the process of re-energizing the special teams culture.
"What happens is, you take a bad play and you don't let it become a catastrophe," Huff said.
With a season-high seven punts, Gillikin placed three inside the 20 against the Buckeyes as well as one inside the 10. On the year, Gillikin is sending nearly 40 percent of his punts inside the 20-yardline with 21 on the year.
Gillkin found himself in a similar situation just a few weeks later, as a mishandled snap in the first quarter at Indiana sent him chasing the ball once again.
"There were two things that were going to happen," Gillikin said. "I thought I'm either going to pick it up and get this punt off, or I'm about to get clobbered."
So Gillikin picked up the ball, and staring down a pair of Indiana defensive linemen darting full speed ahead, he took a few steps under the immense pressure and got the punt off. Officially ruled a 22-yard punt, Gillikin forced the Hoosiers to the 40 yard line for one of 18 fair catches this season.
By the time the Big Ten Championship arrived, Gillikin was just as fresh as ever, on the heels of another consistent performance which featured two punts downed inside the Michigan State 20-yard line and one at the Spartan 2-yard line in Penn State's Big Ten East Division clinching victory.
"The Big Ten Championship was probably the calmest I've been all year just because there weren't any conditions, which was a big factor but it was really the confidence that I could keep doing what I've been doing in practice and in games," Gillikin said.
With the Rose Bowl Game drawing closer each day, there's not even a hint of anxiety in the mind of the ESPN.com True Freshman All-American, who also garnered honorable mention All-Big Ten accolades not more than a month a half ago.
"I can't do any of that without the other guys on the punt team, if I can't get the ball off without Yaz or the guys protecting me, none of that ever happens, so with team success comes individual recognition," Gillikin said.
Rather, he can be found preparing like he always does, with his teammates by his side."I couldn't be successful without the other two guys Danny Pasquariello and Gulla," Gillikin said. "they kind of took me under their wing this summer and this season. I had a few bad games but they were always there supporting me, especially Yaz, he has been a steady rock to me all season."