The most interesting NFL rookie in 2019 isn’t the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who’d also been a first-round pick in the MLB Amateur Draft 10 months prior. It’s not the wide receiver who looks like the human avatar of a brick wall strapped to rocket skates. It won’t even be the pass-rushing defensive end with NFL bloodlines and controversial tweets tweets.
Instead, look no further than an HBCU punter from the northernmost major city in Scotland. This is Jamie Gillan, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff punter dubbed the “Scottish Hammer” — the athlete who showed up tailbacks, quarterbacks, wide receivers, and defensive stars with an absurd pro day workout.
And while he didn’t hear his name called on any of the three days of this year’s draft, Gillan pushed himself to the periphery of draft conversation and endeared himself to NFL pundits with tales of strength and athleticism rarely seen from special teamers.
Looking for the next Michael Dickson? Check out Arkansas-Pine Bluff punter Jamie Gillan — AKA The Scottish Hammer — who bought four NFL footballs to train for the draft ... and popped all of them. @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/voJVdRCeQ1— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) February 20, 2019
But Gillan’s rise from Inverness rugby player to member of Cleveland’s offseason roster was about more than just the leg strength to destroy footballs. As the draft loomed, he took some time to sit down with me and discuss the insane career path that has him on the precipice of being the NFL’s next great international punter.
Gillan’s entire football career has been a glorious act of happenstance
Gillan isn’t a man who worries much. Over the course of talking with him for about half an hour before the NFL Draft, he comes across as a man who goes where the universe takes him with few objections.
Take the start of his gridiron career, which didn’t begin until 2014. Gillan moved to America with his father, a member of the Royal Air Force, one year earlier. The youth rugby standout settled in Maryland and found his way to Leonardtown High School, whose program needed a kicker as Gillan neared graduation.
The Scotsman answered the call — for all of five regular-season games. That was long enough for a high school coach to dub him the “Scottish Hammer,” insisting the nickname would take off (it did).
It was also enough to send him to a pair of all-star exhibitions, and college football programs took notice. Representatives from Kentucky, Old Dominion, Delaware State, and Towson all approached him, most with walk-on or grayshirt opportunities.
That didn’t make much sense for Gillan, who was intent on returning to the rugby pitch in Scotland without the benefit of a full scholarship. Nearby Division II Bowie State came through, but the Bulldogs’ best plans were undone by, of all things, a Facebook post.
Here’s what Gillan told me in late April before signing as a UDFA with the Cleveland Browns. I’ve pulled his comments into a blockquote because it’s a story you need to hear him tell in its uninterrupted glory.
Coming up about three weeks before camp, Arkansas-Pine Bluff posted a Facebook post saying their kicker decommitted and they needed one. My good friend Trent had a look, posted my Hudl [prospect highlight reel] on their thing, and I had a scholarship that night.
He didn’t send it to me. He didn’t even tell me. He was in the gym and just sent my Hudl stuff to them. After that I get this random phone call from Arkansas — I didn’t even know Arkansas existed, I called it Ar-Kansas at the start — and then the guy was telling me:
’Hey, this is the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, we’d like to offer you a full scholarship.’
’Ahhhhh, okay. What division?’
’Alright, sure. Send me the paperwork.’
’That’s it? You don’t have any other questions?’
And then a few days later I was on the plane. I didn’t even know it was a historically black school until I got there.
Gillan’s collegiate journey — the next four years of his life — was decided in the span of three hours thanks to a highlight reel his friend posted on an FCS school’s Facebook page. He made a decision most high school students agonize over for months in the course of minutes without so much as Googling his new school. And it all worked out.
“I didn’t care about what place it was or anything like that,” Gillan told me. “I just saw full scholarship, free food, free gym, free football, free everything — I’m in. I get to work out for free. And like I tell everyone, I love working out. I love lifting. I love kicking. I love stretching. I love bettering myself. As soon as I heard it was free, I said ‘count me in, I don’t care where it is.’
”It was definitely a different culture, but I’ve been moving house since I was born. I’ve lived in 12 different places since I’ve been born. I’ve been used to getting along with different people, different cultures all my life. I’ve got some of my best friends at that school.
“It didn’t faze me at all. I didn’t see it as a transition that way [going to an HBCU]. I just said ‘I’m going to a new school,’ like anybody else.“
Pine Bluff’s Facebook gamble paid off
The Golden Lions got their found-money special teamer on the field without much hesitation. Gillan took over kickoff duties in stretches as a freshman and then double-dipped as the team’s punter and field goal specialist from his sophomore year on. Over that time, the rugby standout transformed from a 152-pound wisp to a 210-ish pound dynamo who eventually outweighed some of his team’s linebackers.
But as Gillan bulked up, Pine Bluff fell on — or, more accurately, remained in — lean times.
The Golden Lions won only four games over Division I competition in his four years on campus, further obfuscating Gillan’s path to the pros. When I ask about the game tape scouts likely harped on the most while assessing his NFL talent — an 0-4 kicking performance against Jackson State his senior year that saw three of those attempts get blocked in a 30-27 loss — he only identifies an opportunity.
“I’ve failed so many times the past four years,” said Gillan. “It’s only given me an extra gear and the propensity to get better. Before I get kicks, I never worry. I never do any of that. At the end of the day — and this is going to sound really simple — these football teams play against each other, and if no one ever made a mistake no one would ever lose. You just go out there hoping it’s not you.
“My bad spells never last for long ... Saturday, had a bad day. I woke up Sunday, stretched, and kicked. I’m just gonna work even harder when I fail. As a specialist, you’ve got to be perfect on kicks, so you’ve got to train like you’re perfect. Things happen — it can’t determine your character or who you are as a kicker. Even though the stats might say 20 for 29 (his 2019 field goal numbers), I know what I can do.”
When we swing to the other side of the spectrum — a career-ending 15-10 victory over Texas Southern in which Gillan scored all of his team’s points and blasted five of his six kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks — the Scot is deferential to his teammates.
He lauds his quarterback for getting him in position to make the kicks. He props up his long snapper, who he says was perfect that day. All he’ll cop to is the “easy job of chipping the ball over the post,” even if that was the only way for the Golden Lions to end 2018 on a high note.
So how did Gillan get to the Browns?
Gillan wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, and Pine Bluff didn’t have a pro day. Instead, he made the three-hour drive to Jonesboro to participate in Arkansas State’s event.
That’s where he showed out.
Gillan went from unheralded prospect to fringe cult hero by going a step beyond what most specialists do at their combine or pro day workouts. He turned in a 4.6-second 40-yard dash time along with long jumps and broad jumps that would have put him in the thick of 2019’s class of tailbacks. It was an unexpected twist that earned the overlooked punter a little extra traction before the draft — but it wasn’t a surprise to him.
“I got advice before pro day: ‘Only do this many kicks. Don’t do any running. Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Gillan recounted a few weeks after his eye-opening workout.
“I took heed of that but for me, I’ve been playing rugby since I was 6 years old. I’ve been hitting people since I was 7. All the extra stuff I did that day — the bench press, the jumps — that was really nothing to me since I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. And I work out with the linebackers and run with the receivers and running backs when we’re in the offseason. All that stuff wasn’t a big deal to me.”
“When I went there, I told myself, ‘I’m not gonna run’ because they’re going to want me to kick,” Gillan continued. “But when I got there, if scouts asked me to do something, I was gonna do it. Who am I to tell a scout, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that in front of you.’ I’m not a name here. I’m not in any way big enough to tell those guys no.
“They asked me to do these drills, and I knew I could do it. The funny thing about the 40, I actually didn’t run it until the end of the day after I’d kicked 80-something footballs. I told them, ‘if I’m going to run the 40, can I do it after I kick just in case I tweak something?’ I was slow out the blocks and I cruised through and still ran a 4.6. If I was fresh and wasn’t coming out as a kicker, I definitely would have run it a lot faster.”
We were excited to host UAPB Punter Jamie "The Scottish Hammer" Gillan in our Pro Day today, according to @TomPelissero he may have broken an @NFL Combine Record for kickers with a 36in Vert. pic.twitter.com/ubz3WLmLCD— Arkansas State Football (@AStateFB) March 28, 2019
That wasn’t enough to get Gillan’s name called in Nashville — only two punters did — though the NFL Network’s broadcast did bring him up in an effort to stump producers in charge of finding highlights for each player drafted in 2019 (unfortunately, they had no film from Pine Bluff). Cleveland didn’t hesitate to sign Gillan as an undrafted free agent weeks after bringing him in for an official pre-draft visit.
Gillan will benefit from a league that increasingly views punting as art
The Scotsman’s jump to the league, even in rookie minicamp form, is another step forward in the evolution of special teams. Programs across the gridiron spectrum have been more proactive than ever finding kicking and punting talent from non-traditional sources. Australia has been the biggest beneficiary of that shift, dropping players like Michael Dickson and Lac Edwards, among others, into the NCAA and NFL.
But the British Isles are slowly churning out their own brand of talent as well. After four years at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Gillan now has the chance to follow fellow Scottish players like Graham Gano and Lawrence Tynes into the NFL.
Gillan isn’t viewed as more than an emergency kicking option, despite his 70-yard field goal range:
Instead, he’ll head to training camp as a punter who can add some value in the kickoff game as well. That will put him in direct competition with veteran Britton Colquitt for the lone punting spot on the Cleveland roster.
While his rugby background made him a versatile kicker at Pine Bluff, the Browns won’t be looking for him to use any run-up before his kicks in the NFL.
“The coaches I talked to all want me to be a stationary punter,” he explained. “That’s actually perfect for me. Running with the football and punting it down the field with great height under it is really hard. Especially if it’s windy or anything like that. All my combine work has all been in regular American style. But I’ve still got a little bit of a weird flair to it because of the way I hold the ball and how I kick it.”
Gillan’s versatility will go a long way in a time when punting is more of an art form than ever. The value of a ball-deadening specialist who can lock opponents inside their own 10-yard lines with angled kicks has never been higher. And while the Scot has the speed and power to hit like a truck while covering his own kicks, his only focus heading into the 2019 season is fleshing out his repertoire of punts to give Cleveland a wide range of options on fourth down.
“I’ve been working on my flexibility and almost all of my punts are getting that five-second hang. I’m getting it outside the numbers where they want it ... You’ve got banana kicks, the other-way banana kicks, regular end-over-end, a high one, a short one, one that goes straight into the corner with not as much hang time. There’s just so many ways you can keep the return man on their feet, and obviously at the next level the gunners are going to be really good too, so it’ll be a lot of fun to work with that.”
And if the NFL doesn’t work out, he knows there’s a place for him back on rugby pitches. Four years of college football workouts and his booming leg strength mean he’s got a shot at a long professional sporting career even if it’s not on the gridiron.
After approximately 30 minutes of talking while Gillan patiently waited outside his gym for a workout, I had to ask him one final question. Leaning hard into his Scottish roots, I probe him on whether he’s a whiskey drinker. He laughs uncomfortably. He’s not interested in scaring away potential teams.
“Er,” he pauses. “I dabble in it, sometimes.”
But when I ask him whether he prefers Scotch or bourbon after spending four years in the South, his apprehension fades away in a show of hometown patriotism.
“Oh,” he says without hesitation. “We’re going Scotch all day.”