Illinois had problems on special teams last year, especially punt and kick returns. Last in the country is not acceptable to new special team coordinator Tim Salem.
"When the people on the streets and the general fan, the people wearing orange and blue in the state of Illinois, read the numbers, we finished 120th in kickoff returns. I don't give a (expletive) what we did right or wrong, they're going to see 120 out of 120. Those are the numbers, so it's easy to point a finger and say they got nothing accomplished."
Salem is placing major importance on special teams this spring. He is searching for the best players for each spot on each unit. It is a work in progress.
"Coach Beck (Tim Beckman) and I had meetings on special teams before spring ball began. I believe there's coaches here who do it the right way. There's a system and structure that must be dealt with the right way to be successful.
"And that means you have the right players. If you've got good coaching and good structure, but you have the wrong players out there, they're not big enough, talented enough or fast enough to do it, I don't care what structure or coaches you have, you can't do it.
"We've got to make sure we're taking the right guy that can play left tackle, the right guy that can play left guard. The right guy that can do the job we are asking for for us to be successful. We're talking about guys who can make that all positive for us.
"We'll have some good experiments in springtime, find out which of these players can play football. Who really is a football player? Not just someone who can lift weights or jump on the bags, but a football player. Finding the right players and positions is gonna be the fun part of spring."
Salem likes to joke, but his search for the right players is a serious one.
"I walk the hallways and ask guys whether they want to be on special teams. It's a big deal."
Special team coaches often remain anonymous until something goes wrong. But Salem enjoys the role.
"There's no question because it's got the word 'special.' It's unique. I've been involved with special teams, but I don't want to just get labeled as a special teams coach. You're working with both offensive and defensive players, so this is a chance for me to yell and scream at defensive players too. So you're kind of coaching the whole team."
And yet, he is quick to downplay his role. For instance, he reacts strongly when someone claims special teams is a third of the game.
"It's not 33%. Ours was 17.1% last year. The range in the Big 10 was from 15.5% for Northwestern and 17.8 % for Wisconsin. I've been saying this for over 20 years. You hear as a youngster that special teams is a third of the game, but it's not one third. We've been talking lies all these years. But if we win that part, that'll greatly enhance our chances of winning."
There is never a dull moment with special teams due to all the variables. The key is to gain more yardage of field position than your opponent while giving up less. Do that consistently, and you can win more games.
"It's strange how the ball can bounce and turn and wiggle in the special teams area. And the spacing that you're fighting for is the extra five, eight, 10 yards of field position. It's just so very vital. That's the unique part of the game.
"Special teams is unique because of the field spacings, the dimensions, the ball bounces, the wind takes the ball, and bigger plays. You're looking at 40 yards for punts and more for large kickoffs.
"The amount of area and territory that has to be covered is different. It's bigger and larger. It's like looking for a needle in the haystack. That's what you're dealing with.
"I can punt the ball 67 yards and change the whole complexion of that play and maybe the game. I can also shank it for 19 yards and change the whole complexion of the game."
Illinois fans complained about the use of the muddle huddle on extra points the seven years of the Ron Zook regime. The idea was to force opponents to devote practice time to preparing for it. It was never used to produce a two-point conversion, but it also never caused the Illini problems. Salem says he has many weapons in his arsenal, including the muddle huddle.
"Not that it's a mainstay or focal point, but we may use the muddle huddle at times. There's things you use that might be very simple for us to align in that causes enough headaches to the opponent. Do you get pay-off value? Yes.
"If we try to do something that causes us headaches but does nothing against our opponent, then we're wasting our time. I'll be the first one to bitch. But if there's an adjustment we're making that's an advantage to us, we'll do it as long as we can play fast. We don't want the kids to play slow and hesitant.
"You can play fast on special teams, just like offense and defense. Those kids can take the field and know exactly what they're doing, what their alignment is, what their assignments are, what their adjustments are and have an attitude.
"When you play fast, you can get those yards. Every yard counts on special teams. Every yard. Your get-off from the line of scrimmage or your takeoff out of your stance, you're just exploding from 10 to 15 yards harder, then when you're at 40 you're one yard closer to being in position. All those things are huge."
Salem will not be alone coaching any of the six special team units. The whole village will be involved.
"I'll have between three and five assistants on each unit. On kickoff coverage, for example, one coach might be assigned to three guys on the right, another coach to three guys in the left, and another assigned to the middle. And somebody has the kicker."
Salem's bag of tricks will be huge and all-encompassing, but he is still seeking the simplest way of accomplishing goals.
"I still believe in being sound and simple. Win the surest way. Just don't do something stupid if it's gonna lessen your chances of winning because it's very costly. That's not being smart. If you chip away and are always making positive yards in field position for the offense and defense, the special teams are doing their job."
In the last of his four-part interview, Salem shares his unique perspective on specific special teams.