This senior class was one of the most successful in school history. Frank Bodani, email@example.com
Call the best punter in Penn State football history a perfectionist.
The one some say is gifted with a photographic memory.
Try this on: No one can remember the last time Blake Gillikin earned anything less than an “A” in a class of anything, anywhere.
He’s determined to go to medical school and become a surgeon.
This guy from Georgia with the blond mullet happens to be the best in school history at the football position no one really wants to see on the field.
Gillikin’s unusual Penn State journey has one performance remaining, Dec. 28 at the Cotton Bowl in Texas.
“He’s a freak, man,” his twin brother Tyler said, in the best way possible.
“Sometimes he just looks at things and he knows it. He works extremely hard and he’s academically gifted.”
All the better to dissect every movement of his unique football skill reliant on precise routine. In which the smallest glitches are deadly, similar to swings in golf and baseball.
Which is all the more impressive about his consistency and diversity as a punter.
Gillikin does have one of the strongest legs in the country. His 43.0-yard average is just .13 away from No. 1 on Penn State’s career list. He’s the only player in school history with six punts of 65 or more yards, the only one with three 70-plus-yard punts.
But it’s much more than that. Penn State’s offense was successful enough that he rarely had an open field stretching before him, rarely in position to kick it as far as he could. So he became an expert target shooter, too.
He earned two Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his skill in pinning opponents in precarious situations near their goal lines.
And he admits to a unique connection between his greatest attributes on the field and off it.
Last year he was the first punter in school history to be named an Academic All-American. Now, he’s the first two-timer.
How many even know of the Evan Pugh Scholar Award? Gillikin won it. It’s given to juniors and seniors in the upper 0.5 percent of their respective classes.
Most recently, he’s studied neuroscience, exercise physiology and biochemistry, and he conquered his organic chemistry lab. He spent last summer shadowing a Penn State orthopedic surgeon and interning at a physical therapy clinic.
Gillikin apparently has logged more hours in Penn State’s academic center than anyone else on the team.
Their brotherly love of football
These pursuits seemed ingrained in Blake Gillikin and his twin brother. Tyler Gillikin is Northwestern’s long snapper, owns a 3.93 grade point average in microbiology and plans to attend medical school during his senior year of football in 2020 — which includes a trip to Beaver Stadium.
“Blake is very thoughtful and a deep thinker,” said their mother, Taryn Gillikin. “Tyler is more like me, he’ll just start talking and everything comes out.
“Blake really thinks about what he says before he says it. He’s more methodical than Tyler. Blake is more quiet and reserved.”
Still, who could have predicted twin special teams careers in Big Ten football?
Their parents were elite swimmers. Taryn Gillikin was an All-American in the 100 butterfly at the University of Kansas and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Their father, Walt Gillikin, was a sprint freestyle swimmer at the University of North Carolina.
They met by chance after college doing swim workouts in Atlanta.
He joined a banking firm and eventually got into commercial real estate. She became a flight attendant. They married and had their boys and were dedicated to keeping them as active as possible.
“We tried to turn them into swimmers,” Taryn said with a laugh.
For Blake, though, “he’ll kick anything,” she said. “Tennis balls, hacky sack balls. If you tossed a pencil at him, he’d kick a pencil.
“So we kind of started with soccer …”
She quickly understood where this was headed. When Blake was a skinny 11-year-old with a penchant for accidentally breaking bones, he told his mother, “‘I’m going to play in the NFL some day.’
“And I said, ‘Honey, the only way you’re going to play in the NFL is if you’re kicking the ball to do it.'”
Paving the road for an NFL punter
Blake became fascinated with the smallest nuances of kicking and punting. He embraced the mundane practice details needed to master distance, placement and consistency.
He was as unwavering in perfecting his football craft as he was in the classroom.
By high school he routinely dropped a football and tapped it against walls in their home while watching TV. The goal was for the ball to strike the foot at the exact same place, time after time.
By his sophomore year the ball was “making a different sound off his foot,” almost like a mini-explosion, sending it 50 and 60 yards away. He would be going to college to do this.
And he wanted to break away from Georgia and the South. He wanted to explore and conquer a path unknown. At Penn State, he knew he could punt right away and begin preparations to becoming a surgeon.
“What makes a guy like Blake different is his drill work and work ethic,” said Mike McCabe, who runs a national organization for teaching punting and kicking. He’s worked with Gillikin regularly.
“Drill work is everything. Its monotonous and it sucks. It’s a lot of work. But he’s motivated and he wants it …”
Even when the plans go awry. That’s the toughest thing for a perfectionist. Take last year when a bad pulled leg muscle did not heal in time for his usual practice preparation heading into the season. He struggled with inconsistencies all year, particularly early on.
He said he turned to his inner-family for support.
“You have to have a strong backbone to be a specialist because you get picked on a lot because you’re not supposed to be as good of an athlete,” Taryn Gillikin said. “It’s a tough road because no one really respects you until you’re needed.
“They mostly only notice when you screw up.”
He rebounded nicely this season. Coach James Franklin praised him regularly for flipping the field on opponents, doing his best work in tight confines. Consider that Penn State has yielded just 35 punt return yards all season.
Franklin added that he believes Gillikin will be even better in the NFL, where he almost surely will have more field to work with.
“He hasn’t had a chance to really show how big of a leg he has,” his brother said.
And certainly there is this: Working only one year in the NFL should be enough to pay for medical school.