James Franklin does not want to see his punter line up for field goals.
His punter, on the other hand? He said Tuesday afternoon he wouldn’t mind that at all.
“Yeah, I mean, to be honest with you, it’s a lot doing all three,” junior punter Blake Gillikin acknowledged, referring to punts, kickoffs and field goals. “But I did it in high school. We played a 15-game season — state playoffs and everything — and I think, over the course of that season, I learned how to condition my body and keep my leg kind of fresh.
“I’d have to argue with my two years of experience already, I’ve kind of started to do that. I’ve become more mature since I’ve been here, and being able to take on those responsibilities is feasible — even though, obviously, it’s going to take more conscious effort to monitor how my leg’s feeling and how my body’s feeling.”
It’s not that Franklin doesn’t trust Gillikin’s leg. (After all, he nailed a 53-yard field goal in his high school’s state title game.) It’s just that, according to Franklin’s own staff and the kicking gurus more tuned into the position, balancing field goals with punting is not an ideal situation. Field-goal kicking is more nuanced and technical than most outsiders think.
Longtime fan-favorite Sam Ficken struggled when he started to speed up his approach to the ball during games compared to how he kicked at practices. One minor tweak, shortening up his steps, helped transform him from one of the country’s least-accurate kickers to one of the program’s best-ever.
A minor tweak here, or a minor hitch there, and Gillikin could be forced to focus more on field-goal kicking than punting if he’d start at all three. So, Franklin said last week, “We’d prefer not to do it.”
Still, Gillikin — a second-team All-Big Ten punter — wants to be prepared. So far this spring, he’s attempted field goals every single day.
“Regardless of whether or not I’m the starter or the backup heading into the season, my mindset is just to stay ready and be there in case they need me,” Gillikin said. “Because that’s pretty much all I can do, and prepare like I’m going to handle a lot come game day in August.”
The Nittany Lions find themselves in a waiting game on special teams after starting kicker Tyler Davis graduated and Alex Barbir transferred. Right now, the only true kicker on the roster is redshirt freshman walk-on Carson Landis — and scholarship freshman Jake Pinegar won’t arrive on campus until summer.
“Coming in, I’ve seen what he can do and I think physically he has the tools to be able to play right away,” Gillikin said, referring to Pinegar. “But a big part of it is about whether you can handle it mentally ... because, obviously, not much can prepare you for playing in front of 110,000 people and on ESPN.”
If Pinegar can’t handle it, or needs a few weeks or months of seasoning, Gillikin will be ready to step up. It’s not ideal for the Nittany Lions, but that is their reality this season.
And, although Franklin expressed some reservations last week, Gillikin sounded confident about the balancing act. He’s been trying to stand out with his work ethic, and he feels he’s well on his way to feeling prepared as a result.
“That’s kind of been my goal since I got here, to kind of keep my head down and work during the offseason and show I’m just as dedicated as everyone else even though I might do something less football-like than people might see,” he said. “So that’s probably the biggest thing for me — to gain the respect of people not just by being one of the top specialists in the country but also working harder than everyone else.”