Tim Salem is a breath of fresh air when it comes to football coaches. Rather than limit his remarks to coach-speak, he provides great detail in everything he discusses. He has an ability to make special teams interesting for even the casual observer.
Take for example kickoffs. Salem makes a simple kickoff come alive with his enthusiasm and detail.
"Kickoff coverage is the heartbeat of your team. You need eleven wild men who want to obliterate the ball carrier and set the tone for the defense. It all starts here, running through people, taking on double teams and splattering the ball carrier inside the 20 yard line. Having a train wreck on the other side of the 20. That's football."
Salem would be a great play-by-play guy, but he prefers coaching. While kickoff teams follow a fairly simple formula, kick return teams require much more complexity and thought. He has credibility after his work at Central Florida.
"We had some good success the last three years, and against teams like Texas, Kansas State, Miami of Florida and Georgia, not just mom-and-pop teams. This season, after being number one in 2010, we tried to plug in some guys, some redshirts, and it wasn't working. Until the last weekend in September, we were 113th in kickoff returns.
"We made changes. And going into the last weekend of the season, we were number one again. But they (Texas El Paso) squib-kicked so we couldn't return, and we finished number three."
A touchdown is always the goal on returns, but it is rare. Salem wants every kickoff return to gain field position beyond the 20 yard line if at all possible. Getting past the first line of defense requires teamwork and planning.
"We treat kickoff returns like an offensive play, like a power-play, an outside zone or an 'iso'. It's not just a return. We'll know who to double-team, who to pull and kick out. And we need that ball through the hole, bang! We'll study film and go by the law of averages according to where and how deep the ball is likely to be kicked.
"Just like with an offensive play, we have placed the 'go' between the guard and center, the guard and tackle, the tackle and tight end, and outside the tight end. There's blocking schemes for kick returns. If our front five guys, our offensive line, make their blocks, you have a good chance of making yards. If those guys up front don't block, you don't have a very good chance.
"I challenge those kids in our special team meetings. You think you'll find kick returners; every team has one. Those up-front blockers are the guys that matter. If they block, I guarantee you will make yards."
Punt returns require similar preparation, although Salem points out there are few opportunities in a game to return punts. Some have great hang time and are well covered. Some are impossible to field. The Illini attempted only 24 punt returns for the entire 13 game 2011 season.
For punt returns, making no mistakes that could cause you to lose field position is preferable except in extreme cases where there are openings for runbacks.
"When the punt returner fields the ball, if he doesn't grab it and down it, he may just get a one-yard gain. But guess what. If he doesn't grab it, the ball will roll 20 yards back. That's 20 yards that doesn't show up on the stats. Yet it counts as a return of only one yard.
"Because of your decision to save the ball from rolling, you prevented two first downs from the wrong direction. Those are the numbers we've got to get across to the team in the long run."
Illinois returners let several balls hit the ground and bounce goalward last fall. Frequent strong winds in Memorial Stadium contributed mightily to the problem. But Salem wants no excuses. Every punt that can be fielded must be fielded cleanly.
"You have to understand boys, they're kicking into a pretty stiff wind coming out of the South today. Let's not stand on our heels at 40 yards, let's move up to 35 yards. If they're going with the wind, you move back. That's why I have 'coach' written on my shirt. Those small things have to add into the big things of special teams."
The Illini used two punters last year. Freshman Justin DuVernois kicked some boomers but showed his inexperience by dropping two snaps. Sophomore Ryan Lankford used his rugby style with mixed results. Salem says both will have opportunities to punt this year.
"The rugby punt has become a weapon in recent years. It'll bounce and take weird hops. Ryan Lankford made a difference in the Kraft Bowl game. We'll be prepared to do both, the rugby punt at the normal punt."
The Illini have no less than five walkon placekickers competing this spring, including Taylor Zalewski, Patrick Dunn, Nick Immekus, Brennen VanMieghem and J.J. Blau. Incoming freshman scholarship athlete Ryan Frain will join the group over the summer. Salem is unafraid of using rookies.
"We are bringing in a freshman placekicker. At Eastern Michigan in 2003, we took a freshman from Canton (Andrew Wellock), and he was one of the three finalist for the Groza Award. We recruited Frain to kick."
Illinois has only rarely blocked a kick or punt in recent years. Salem wants to change that, but much depends on the quality of his personnel.
"In blocking kicks and blocking punts, that's a knack. It's just amazing how a few guys have a knack, know how to twist and turn, get through blocks and get a hand in there. And part of it is luck.
"You can drill that, drill that, drill that. But if you have guys that are either scared of the ball or don't want to put their hand through at the right time, nothing will happen. I knew a guy once who could just do it. And other guys, with their speed and demeanor you think could do it but just never get it done."
The Illini also haven't tried much trickery with special teams over the years. But word of warning for everyone this fall: with Salem at the helm of special teams, expect the unexpected.
"Oh yes. We've got some fun, some glitz and some flair. At times, you're looking for the big play. Or you've got to change momentum. You can't get a big play unless you try for one. So if you need it, you have to try for one.
"There's a few gimmicks in my special teams book. Whether it be a fake field goal or a fake punt formation, or a reverse on a punt return, a little hesitation by the defense might give you an advantage to turn an 8 yard run into a 28 yard run."
Salem appears to be an excellent special team coach. At least, he talks a great game. But like his predecessors, he states firmly that coaches can only do so much. The main key to special teams is having enough athletic depth to make them shine.
"It's all because of people. If you're too slow, and you're not tough enough, I'm going to find somebody who is hungry and can do it. You need the right people in the right slots."