Tim Salem Brings Energy, Excitement To ST

The Fighting Illini football team struggled with its special teams last season. Fans studying statistics were alarmed at the poor results and clamored for a special team coach capable of reversing the results. It appears their wishes are coming true. Among the new UI staff members is Tim Salem, running back coach and special team coordinator. He knows what he's doing.

Tim Salem is the son of former Minnesota head coach Joe Salem. He's had a long and distinguished career, both as a player and coach. He was quick to follow Tim Beckman to Illinois after spending the last few years at Central Florida.

He coordinated special teams at the Florida school the past three years. He has studied it and produced results on the field. And judging from his introduction to Illinois media, he talks a good game also.

With Illini fans demanding better special teams, Salem could be just what they need. He knows whereby he speaks. He will be innovative and flexible with his schemes, but he will also accept certain realities many fans might not understand.

For instance, Illini fans have been especially adamant about improving punt returns. The Illini were last in the nation last year, and fans demand big runbacks. Salem tries to set them straight on why he won't be wasting valuable practice time on exotic punt return schemes. He has the statistics to back up his notions.

"Do you know what the average number of punt returns a game is? Last year it was 1.61, and the year before it was 1.73. So that means on average, out of 120 teams, you're going to average less than two returns per game. That's all you get.

"So if you only get two returns per game on average, a lot of the time they bounce on the ground or you fair catch them. So if I can only return two, I'm gonna have one return and practice the (stuff) out of it so we can gain 10 yards.

"I'm saving time because we don't get all these opportunities. So I'm not going to keep coaching and scheming and spending all this time trying to do well. The numbers aren't going to happen.

"Last year, we had only 20 punt returns (in 13 games). The ball may bounce out of bounds, the kicker may shank it, you may fair catch it and you don't get a return. Why should I have a playbook that is this thick when I don't get any chances?"

However, Salem will be flexible regarding formations. For instance, while he uses one player back on punts much of the time, he employs a second returner in some circumstances.

"It's based on the team. If you're facing that rugby stuff, that ball isn't gonna hit the ground. Every time that ball hits the ground, it lessens your chances of winning. If there is a team that's rugby kicking, I'm gonna have two guys back there. I'm not gonna let that ball hit the ground. Period. It cannot hit the ground."

Illini kickoff returns also failed to impress last season. Salem explains it requires a speedy return man and competent blocking up front.

"Whoever that (return) guy is, receiver, fullback, running back, tight end, defensive back, I don't care who that guy is. That cat has got to have a little bit of stuff to him. Because that's the guy that has the chance to run, run, run with speed.

"That hole is going to open and close quickly, just like a running play. You better get your fanny through there. And you better be thinking about breaking an arm tackle. Those guys cannot have the luxury of dancing. They'd better hit it when the hole is there."

Are there players presently on the team with the speed and skill to return kicks?

"We'll get that done. I'll know from watching the guys run in the spring. And there will be some guys from this recruiting class."

Most fans focus on the returner during kickoffs. But Salem emphasizes the front five.

"A lot of people have good return guys. But it's the front guys that make the difference. That's the key to kickoff returns. Yeah, your fullback may knock a guy back at the 25 yard line. But it's the five-man front, that's where your kickoff returns are made.

"Just like offensive line, if your front five guys are blocking, that makes you yards on offense. If them guys ain't blocking, you get nothing.

"Same way with kickoff returns. So if your front five are in position, I use the word BOB, body on body. If all five are making their assignments, we're making yards. If one or two miss, and you're half-assed, the return is going nowhere."

Most special team units around the country employ a lot of talented younger players eager to gain playing time and experience for future years. Salem and his boss Tim Beckman play starters.

"They're the best players. I guarantee you the head coach is on the same wavelength as I am. That's one of the reasons I wanted to jump to the end of this deal. That's probably from being with him in recruiting, having been with him on his staff, he's probably as much like I am as anyone I've seen. So when I look in the mirror, I see him."

Won't the starters tire adding special teams to their other workload?

"That's why we're starting conditioning and running right now. Have you heard of TV timeouts? They should never get tired."

The last few years, Illinois has lacked sufficient depth to employ skilled and experience players both on special teams plus their regular assignments. Salem agrees the teams with the best depth also have the best special teams. If his starters play on other units, he must have someone to spell them at their regular positions.

To help the cause, he does offer one proviso on using starters.

"I've always believed this, if you're a starter you should never be in on more than two special teams. When he starts being on three or four, then obviously (you need more depth).

"It's okay to be first team, but it's not okay to be tired. Why can it not be like that? That's the way I coached the last three years. The kids I've had have been responsive to that."

Salem is excited to be coaching Illinois.

"I'm back in the Big Ten conference. The last time I was in this stadium was when I was with Ohio State back in 1998. I've always liked this stadium and this campus very much. I saw the columns, and I realized the rich tradition and history here."

By the way, Salem will also be coaching running backs, another important role. InsideIllini will provide a much more extensive interview with him in the next couple of weeks.

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