Illinois coach Ron Zook knows the importance of special teams; he spent much time on them this spring as always. With one exception, he is pleased with their progress.
"We've spent a lot of time on the kicking game this spring, and I feel very good with where we are in terms of protection, coverage. Obviously, punter questions still remain to be worked out. I think we're gonna be fine there."
The punter question is not easily dismissed. Last year, Anthony Santella led the Big 10 in punting and gave the Illini great field position repeatedly. He has graduated, and a replacement is yet to be determined.
Converted placekicker Matt Eller has a strong leg, but punting is as much technique as leg strength. It takes years of practice to perfect every aspect of a punt, and he lacks that experience. Freshman walkon Brad Janitz needs to get the ball off faster and, like Eller, needs more consistency to be considered for the job.
Upcoming sophomore Ryan Lankford was tested as a rugby-style punter this spring. Lankford was a one-man band in high school. He played quarterback, receiver, did the punt and kick returns as well as kickoffs and punts. If he lines up in the backfield to receive the snap, he has the option of punting, running or throwing the ball.
"We worked on the rugby kick," Zook stated. "When you've got a guy like Ryan Lankford back there, who was a pretty good high school punter, that adds another threat. He not only has very good ball skills, but he understands setting up blockers and things like that.
"So you have the opportunity to put pressure on the defensive kicking game. This summer, he'll work a lot on it, so I think we'll be a lot better there."
Another possibility is rookie Justin DuVernois. The Floridian has made a good name for himself at kicking camps, but his tremendous high school team rarely punted. Can he face a strong college rush and get his punts off consistently well without fear of the pressure? If so, he could be the answer.
The senior Dimke had an excellent spring despite missing two field goals in the Spring Game. He has a great leg and displays excellent consistency. Zook raves about him.
"I get on him pretty hard out there. But I think Derek has a chance to be the best kicker in the country. I really do. With his work ethic and the way he kicks, he's a pretty special guy. I told him he's got to hit every kick because I don't know how many opportunities he's gonna get this year."
Indeed, if the Illini offense scores more touchdowns, fewer field goals will be needed. Of course, he will still need to hit his extra points, and he handles kickoffs also.
One question mark this spring was finding a holder on placements. Walkon Tim Russell got all the snaps and appears to be more than adequate. He is also the backup long snapper.
Dimke got most of the kicks this spring. Zook explained he wanted Dimke and Russell to work together as much as possible. Nick Immekus and Pat Dunn both showed strong legs when given a chance, but they were typical nervous freshmen according to Zook.
"A little inconsistent. Hopefully we won't need one, but if we need a backup I think we'll be okay there."
Several Illini speedsters are competing to return kickoffs.
"Justin Green can return the ball, Terry Hawthorne can return the ball, Jack Ramsey can return the ball, Troy Pollard can return the ball, Darius Millines can return the ball. I think we're in pretty good shape with returners."
The same is true for punt returns. Jack Ramsey did most of the work last year, and he had a long return his only opportunity in the Spring Game. Punt returners must be fearless, have great hands and excellent vision. Zook says few are capable of handling the assignment.
"Number one, having a guy that wants to be back there is big. Jack Ramsey wants to be back there. Troy Pollard wants to be back there. Terry (Hawthorne) wants to be back there.
"I think they're all pretty good guys with the ball in their hands. They'll get that opportunity. The guy we have the most confidence in in game situations is the guy we go with back there."
Many want Hawthorne returning punts. He is a dynamic athlete with a reputation as an excellent returner. He may get a chance back there, but right now Illini coaches care more about keeping him healthy and making sure he understands his cornerback responsibilities.
All other special team work requires quality athletes who are not already worn out playing their regular positions. It appears the Illini have enough bodies to prevent long runbacks on kicks and punts, as well as block on punt and kick returns. Athletic incoming freshmen will have a chance to prove themselves for special teams in Camp Rantoul.
As Zook reflects on spring ball, he believes the Illini accomplished what they set out to do.
"Going into the spring, we said we were excited about the stability of where we were. We also talked about the fact our players have to understand we must build on our accomplishments of this past year, and that we continue to improve and get better. I also said there was no reason why we shouldn't improve in all three phases.
"I can say with a lot of confidence that we have made a lot of progress. We are really pleased and happy with the way our players have practiced, how we've gotten after it. I think we've made great improvements this spring. We've got to continue to improve."
Zook is especially grateful there were no major injuries this spring. He believes he knows why.
"The one thing our guys have done, and the reason we're very fortunate with injuries, is they've gone extremely hard. These scrimmages we've had this spring have been as physical as any we've had since I've been here. And maybe as I've had as a head football coach. I think that's a tribute to the coaches and a tribute to the players."
Illinois players are basically on their own between now and the start of fall camp. They will work with Coach Lou Hernandez and his Strength & Conditioning staff, but otherwise they must work hard on their own to prepare for another rugged fall schedule.
"This was the third phase. The fourth phase is the summer phase. That's the one phase that it's gonna be important for these guys to continue to build. The way they've worked, and the way they've attacked this spring, there's no reason to believe they're not gonna continue to improve. So when we get to Rantoul in August, we'll be ready to go."
Illinois appears to have a favorable 2011 schedule, with 8 home games. Zook realizes the opportunity ahead, but he refuses to take anything for granted.
"I don't think there's any question we're excited about where we are. It's cautious optimism. We're gonna play 12 teams that can beat us. We're gonna have to play the way we're capable of playing. There's a lot of things you have no control over.
"But in terms of attitude, in terms of coaching staff, in terms of the way they're working, I think we couldn't ask for any more."