It is not often that a college football season brings two bye weeks to a team. There are undoubtedly pros and cons of two bye weeks versus one. Although, what a second bye week allows us to do is reflect on units of a college football team that don’t always get a lot of recognition. This week, during Penn State football’s second bye week, we are going to shed light on Blake Gillikin and the Penn State special teams. It is no secret that special teams weren’t always a strength for the Nittany Lions, but that has changed this season.
Blake Gillikin and the Special Teams
Penn State punter Gillikin has been the anchor of the unit since he stepped foot on campus as a freshman. He has averaged at least 42 yards per punt in each of his four seasons for the Nittany Lions. Through eight games he is averaging 42.2 yards per punt. When the offense stalls, which happens, Gillikin is counted on to pin the opposing team deep. Football is likened to a game of chess in a lot of aspects and Gillikin wins that battle almost every punt. So, who else is there besides Gillikin? He doesn’t do it all by himself.
The Nittany Lions utilize two placekickers throughout each game. This is something that has been done under James Franklin in recent years. Jake Pinegar and Jordan Stout share the duties. Both have done an excellent job in their respective roles through the first eight games. Pinegar got the starting field goal kicker job as a true freshman a season ago. Last season, Pinegar finished with a 96.4% extra point make percentage, but just a 66.7% field goal percentage. He struggled throughout the season in 2018 and ended his freshman year making one of three field goals in the bowl game against Kentucky. His sophomore outing has been much better. Pinegar has missed only one field goal this season.
The addition of transfer kicker Stout has undoubtedly taken some of the pressure off of Pinegar. This has likely allowed him to focus on the accuracy of his kicks. Stout handles all kickoffs and field goals longer than 50 yards. Returners rarely get to actually return kicks against Stout. Further, the sophomore is two for three on field goals outside of 50 yards. He even set a Penn State record with a 57-yard field goal against Pitt. The duo has been solid throughout the Nittany Lion’s 8-0 run. It is a nice change for Penn State fans to not have to worry if a kicker will make the majority of his field goals or not. Something that hasn’t always been the case in Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions mainly use speedster KJ Hamler for kickoff and punt returns. There have been a couple of times this season where fans thought Hamler was going to break away and score. He even did, but it was called back for a holding penalty. Hamler averages just over seven return yards on punts and just under 20 yards on kickoff returns. Don’t be surprised if he gets loose and scores, without it being called back, at least once in the remainder of the season. Standing back with Hamler is either Jahan Dotson or Journey Brown. Dotson has returned two punts this season for a total of 39 yards. Brown has also returned two punts, but only for a combined 19 yards. All three have the capability to break off for a touchdown. It will come down to which gets the opening first.
The coverage on punts and kickoffs is what has seen the most improvement. This is greatly in part due to the addition of Special Teams Coordinator Joe Lorig. Lorig has really turned the unit around. Yes, Gillikin and Stout are pinning the opposing teams back giving the rest of the unit time to get downfield, but that’s not only it. This unit understands their job.
One name that has stood out this season is former track star Dan Chisena. The fifth-year senior is often the first guy in blue and white down the field. You may remember Chisena was the one that put the perfect hit on the Pitt returner but was flagged for kick-catch interference. Further, Chisena was named Special Teams Player of the Week for Penn State after performances against Michigan and Michigan State. Standout Michigan receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones had five punt returns and averaged just over two yards per return. In large part because of the speed of Chisena. After the bye week look for number 88 running downfield and see how many times he gets to the returner first.
Overall, the entire special teams unit has played very well throughout Penn State’s undefeated run. They still have tough tests ahead in Minnesota, Ohio State, and the remaining Big Ten, but with this extra week of rest don’t expect much of a fall-off for Blake Gillikin and the special teams through the last few games of the season.