Football: Collins, Gillikin lead ferocious Northwestern special teams unit


Daily file photo by David Lee

Jake Collins punts the ball into the Evanston night. The senior punter has been one of Northwestern’s most consistent performers this season.

Jonah Dylan, Managing Editor


It seems like every time Northwestern punts, No. 43 is the first one down the field. And it’s not one of the gunners.

It’s Tyler Gillikin, the long snapper — or, as his coaches call him, Atlanta Flash.

The Georgia native, now in his second year as the Wildcats’ long snapper, is a rare constant among Cats specialists who have been ravaged by injuries at kicker. The other is punter Jake Collins, a graduate transfer who has been asked to do a little bit of everything for NU this season.

“We pretty much hang out all the time together,” Collins said. “All we do in all practice is work together.”

Special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk said opposing special teams coaches have to alter their gameplans to find a way to block Gillikin, since most punt-return schemes don’t leave someone to block the long snapper.

Gillikin, for his part, wasn’t always just a long snapper. He played both offense and defense in high school, and he said that helps him in his capacity on special teams.

“Most of the time, a lot of punt return teams don’t block the long snapper,” he said. “And coming from playing actual positions in high school, I think I’m a little more athletic than most long snappers out there. And I pride myself on that. So I definitely try to get down there as fast as possible.”

On field goals, it’s Gillikin snapping to Collins, who also serves as the team’s holder. Behind him, sophomore kickers Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh have faced injuries throughout the season, and Genyk said they’re each working their way back. Kuhbander has played in the last two games after missing the previous two, while Luckenbaugh has been inactive for two straight weeks after he sustained an injury in pregame warmups before NU’s Oct. 27 tilt with Wisconsin.

When Luckenbaugh went down before the matchup with the Badgers, Collins — who has experience handling kickoffs and field goals from his time in high school and at Western Kentucky, where he played for three years — was asked to take some kicking reps. Kuhbander ended up suiting up, but Collins got the call to handle kickoffs.

“He has been a lot of fun to work with because I think his demeanor and his attitude has been really outstanding,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s got a lot of confidence, he’s been in a lot of different battles, and I think he’s played really well.”

His stats back that up. Collins is fifth in the Big Ten with 1,915 punt yards on the year, and he has also pinned opposing teams inside the 20-yard line 17 times. For a unit that has struggled with injuries, Collins’ durability has been key.

He was a solid player for the Hilltoppers, earning Conference USA recognition and being named to the Ray Guy Award Watch List. But for his final year of eligibility, he decided to head north.

“For me, it was always a dream to play against Iowa at Iowa, play against Michigan State at Michigan State, so it has just been a dream come true,” he said. “And then obviously the academics here set me up for life after football. And that’s really the main thing that matters most to me. Punting’s fun and all, but it’s gonna end at some point.”

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