LANDOVER, Md. — Still in his grass and blood-stained white pants, Alvin Kamara stood off to the side and listened.
A few feet away, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton addressed the media from a black lectern inside a small room nestled in the underbelly of FedEx Field. Four questions in to Payton’s press conference, Kamara’s ears perked up. No, his head coach wasn’t talking about him. Instead, Payton fielded a question about the Saints’ punter, Blake Gillikin.
“Listen, he was outstanding. He was outstanding. Outstanding,” Payton said, later adding a fourth “outstanding” when describing Gillikin’s game-ball-worthy efforts.
Several minutes later when it was Kamara’s turn to speak, he quipped, “That’s the most I’ve heard Sean love on a punter.”
The praise for Gillikin’s performance came from all sides: the Saints’ offense, the Saints’ defense, and even Washington’s offense — which had to start three of its drives inside the 5-yard line because of Gillikin’s heroics.
“Their punter was punting the s*** out of the ball,” Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke said.
For Gillikin — who averaged 53.6 yards over five punts with three land inside the 20 — the afternoon started out in one of the most precarious situations for a punter: the end zone.
He wasn’t needed on the Saints’ first four drives, which ended in an interception, a touchdown, a fumble and a touchdown, respectively.
But the fifth drive for New Orleans — which started at the 2-yard line after cornerback Paulson Adebo intercepted Heinicke inside the red zone — went backward to the 1-yard line due to a delay of game penalty paired with three incompletions for quarterback Jameis Winston.
In that situation, Gillikin’s get off time is drastically sped up. His steps are different. The blocking is affected because there’s less space to work with. Naturally, that punt was his worst of the day, a 46-yarder that landed near midfield.
“That’s a really tough situation,” he said. “Inside the 1-yard line, it’s obviously great to get the interception, but kinda praying for a touchback.”
The Saints needed Gillikin once more before halftime; he delivered and then some — booting a spiral punt 60 yards for a picture-perfect coffin corner kick that landed inside the 5-yard line and danced out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
On the sidelines, Kamara was amped for the Penn State product.
“I’m telling him, ‘Do that every time. Bro, do that every time.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m like, ‘No, for real,’” Kamara said. “He’s a heck of a punter.”
The Saints knew Gillikin was special when they signed him as an undrafted free agent last season. Gillikin didn’t play in any games because he was on the injured reserve the whole year, taking the time to learn under veteran punter Thomas Morstead.
Winston called Morstead “one of the greatest punters of all-time,” saying that Morstead took Gillikin under his wing just like Drew Brees did for him in 2020.
“Blake had a year to learn from Thomas, see his work ethic,” Winston said. “While Thomas was out there kicking, Blake was out there, really, every single day doing his job and preparing for this moment. He showed out in a very high way today.”
Gillikin credited part of his foundation to his time at Penn State, which plays in the Big 10, which he jokingly called “a punting conference.”
He said one of the biggest collegiate games he had was against Iowa, when he had at least five punts land inside the 10-yard line.
“But this one probably takes the cake with just how I felt I could change the game and affect it,” he said.
Gillikin said he those practices situational punts every Wednesday, as well as in game warmups, so it’s become “second nature” for him now.
As much as he wishes otherwise, Gillikin is at the mercy of physics once the ball leaves his foot. He can’t control the weather or how wind affects his kicks, nor does he have much to do with what the ball does once it hits the grass.
“My goal is to pin it as close to the sideline as possible every single punt,” Gillikin said. “Easier said than done because it’s a moving object with another moving object, but yeah, I’m aiming at those corners.”
The 60-yarder wasn’t the only one that landed inside the 5-yard line for him Sunday. Of Gillikin’s five punts, he pinned Washington’s offense deep three total times.
Once at the 1. Once at the 3. Once at the 2.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Gillikin became the first punter since 2000 to have three punts of 50-plus yards to be downed inside the 5-yard line. Only 30 times in the past 21 years have punters done so twice in a single game, with Morstead contributing thrice to that total, per ESPN.
All three of those following drives for Washington went nowhere.
Respectively, WFT went three-and-out, then had a drive stall out after gaining 19 yards, and then had a short drive go nowhere after Heinicke threw an ugly pass right to Saints safety P.J. Williams on third-and-long.
“When you play the game on the other team’s side of the field, the game heavily weighs in your favor,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. “For him to punt the ball there, we certainly get excited because their percentages of scoring goes down tremendously when they’re inside their 10-yard line, let alone their 5-yard line.”
Davis later added, “He did an extremely great job. He is to be commended for that. It certainly was a game-changer for us.”
While Gillikin was handling his business on the field, the phone he left in his locker began to blow up. The main NFL Twitter account shared two highlight videos of Gillikin’s punts, with one captioned, “His name is Blake Gillikin and he’s your new favorite punter.”
“That usually doesn’t happen,” Gillikin said with a smile, adding that he was going to turn off his phone once he was done with interviews so he could spend time with his family and “stay grounded.”
Gillikin didn’t just handle punting Sunday. He’s the Saints’ holder, and he also — for the first time this season — handled kickoff duties late in the game. Both of his fourth-quarter attempts were touchbacks.
That change likely came after the Saints’ new kicker, Cody Parkey, not only missed two point-after attempts, but had just one touchback. His first kickoff went to the 1-yard line. The second was the touchback. The third went 1-yard deep into the end zone and was returned for 26 yards.
Gillikin took over after that.