Illinois football coach Tim Beckman will not showcase his special teams, except for field goal tries, during Saturday's Spring Game. Instead, he put his six special teams through their paces in a highly competitive scrimmage during Monday's practice.
"It went good. We got 55 reps, so we got a lot of special teams work done. It was good to see."
Are you making progress?
"Yeah, but we're still a little ways off in such categories as catching the football, punting the ball in the proper area and those sorts of things."
Illini Nation complained mightily about their team's inability to catch punts the past few years. They blamed coaching, but it appears there is more to it than that. Regardless, the Illini will keep working until they find a reliable punt returner, even if it requires using a freshman come fall. Beckman appears frustrated by the situation.
"That's been a sore spot. We don't catch the ball very well. Terry Hawthorne had a couple great punt returns, one of them for about 38 yards set up the win for his team. His team was behind at the time, but they came back and won the competition because his return set up a shorter field goal. But we've got to be more consistent catching the football, especially with a strong wind."
Justin DuVernois has made definite improvement punting the ball since last year. That includes catching snaps since he dropped two last fall. He won't be demonstrating his strong leg Saturday, but both he and Ryan Lankford appear capable of giving the Illini good field position when a punt is required.
The Illini also appear to have some depth at placekicker, with possibly the best one waiting to enroll over the summer. Beckman praised Taylor Zalewski from Monday's workout.
"We had two field goals that were over 55 yards, but the wind was at their back. The wind was blowing pretty good. Taylor Zalewski hit them. He has a strong leg.
"He's done a good job, he's just been a little inconsistent. He hit those two big ones, but then he missed a couple other ones that need to be made."
Still, while Zalewski may be the kickoff guy, he is behind two other kickers.
"The two who appear to have separated themselves are Patrick Dunn and Nick Immekus. By percentages, Zalewski has the strongest leg. He's been proficient at kicking the ball out of the end zone. But he hasn't been consistent enough kicking field goals."
Beckman was asked if he might consider using two placekickers, one for shorter field goals and the other for the lengthy ones.
"Yeah, we did at Toledo. We had a freshman last year who was probably as good as anyone in the country. He kicked two of them over 50 yards, big kicks for us last year. We let him kick off and kick long field goals."
When summer arrives, entering freshman Ryan Frain will join the competition. Beckman expects him to make an immediate impact.
"That's why we recruited him and gave him an opportunity to come here to the University of Illinois. We are excited about seeing what he can do."
Sophomore Brandon Denmark was part of a couple special teams last year. He is impressed with special team coordinator Tim Salem and believes the Illini will make definite improvement this fall.
"Yes sir. He's a live spirit; He's real energetic. He wants us to be bouncing around and be real fiery. I think that's good. I think as long as his attitude is up like that, it'll encourage the players to match his intensity and make us pretty good.
"He wants us to be the best, #1. All he cares about is the #1 spot. I think we're doing all we can to try to reach that goal."