USA Today // Tim Heitman

Position Primer: Special Teams

Illini kicking game looking for a bounce back; punting needs a new leg

IlliniInquirer.com is breaking down each position group daily as Illinois starts fall training camp. We end our position primer today with the specialists.

Day 1: Quarterbacks

Day 2: Running backs

Day 3: Wide receivers

Day 4: Tight ends

Day 5: Offensive line

Day 6: Defensive line

Day 7: The hybrids, LEO and STAR

Day 8: Linebackers

Day 9: Defensive backs

KICKERS

Starter: Taylor Zalewski, senior

Backups: David Reisner, junior; Chase McLaughlin, redshirt freshman

Miss Derek Dimke yet? The Illini went 9-for-17 on field goals last year and excruciatingly missed four extra points as well (38-for-42).Yup, there's a reason Illinois offered 2016 kicker recruit Braxton Pickard. Illinois should be more competitive this year and will need their kickers to make some big ones. 

David Reisner (6-for-11) did that against Penn State last year (3-for-4) in a 16-14 win. While the former Navy recruit who wears Highlighter-yellow shoes provided a great story that week, he slipped down the stretch (2-for-4). Taylor Zalewski has the biggest leg, most experience and performs the best in practice. But he seemed to get a case of the yips last season (3-for-6). He will be the frontrunner but he may have a short leash. There isn't great confidence in either at this point.

Redshirt freshman Chase McLaughlin could get in the mix too. The Texas native played soccer and football in high school and had the most touchbacks in the state of Texas during his senior season.

PUNTERS

Starter: Ryan Frain, junior

Backup: Luke Nelson, junior

At times during the past few seasons, punter Justin Duvernois could make a case for being one of the most valuable players on the Illini. While that might speak to the state of the Illini, it also speaks to Duvernois' ability and consistency. The last three seasons, he ranked fourth (41.9 ypp in 2012), sixth (41.1 ypp in 2013) and third (44.0 ypp in 2014), respectively, among Big Ten punters in yards per punt. Furthermore the last three seasons, the Illini finished first, fourth and second in the Big Ten in net yards per punt. Simply, Duvernois was a big weapon in the ever-important battle of field position, so he definitely is a loss.

Junior Ryan Frain – given a scholarship by Ron Zook's staff – is the clear frontrunner to take over. But he's punted just once in his first two seasons (a 34-yarder vs. Youngstown State last season). Frain has leg talent. He was a three-star recruit out of high school and rated at top-15 kicker by Scout.com and a No. 2 punter nationally by Kornblue Fab 50.

Junior Luke Nelson transferred from College of DuPage to provide Frain a push. The Lyons Township grad -- averaged 46.3 yards per punt in junior college -- has done just that in camp. He has a capable leg. He's also brought some attention to himself by shaving his head into a mohawk with a poof of hair shaping a Block I on either side of his head.

KICK RETURN / PUNT RETURN

Starters: V'Angelo Bentley, senior; Darius Mosely, junior

Backups: ???

The Illini have a come a long way in this aspect of the game lately, in large part due to V'Angelo Bentley. He enters his senior season third in school history in punt return average (13.0) and third in total kick return yardage (1,355 yards). He didn't return a kick or punt for a touchdown last season -- after returning one of each for a touchdown as a sophomore -- but he returned a kickoff for 67 yards and a punt for 40 yards. Simply, he's one of the more dangerous return men in the Big Ten.

Darius Mosely plays up-back on kick return and rarely fields a ball (four returns for 43 yards last season). He'll fill in for Bentley occasionally on punt retuns (seven returns for 49 yards last season).

The Illini will have an open tryout for the backup -- and eventual replacement -- role, especially with Mikey Dudek, Justin Hardee and Dre Brown out with injury. A few names to watch: freshman wide receiver Desmond Cain and freshman cornerback Cameron Watkins.

LONG SNAPPER

Starter: Zach Hirth, junior - OR - Michael Martin, junior

Zach Hirth served as the primary long snapper most of 2013 as a redshirt freshman but an injury limited him to five games last season. Michael Martin, a Champaign Centennial grad whose parents (Karen and Greg) both swam at Ilinois, played all 13 games last year. You didn't hear the names of either -- which means they are doing their jobs well.

HOLDER

Starter: Ryan Frain, junior

Backup: Ryan Tucker, redshirt freshman

Frain takes over for long-time holder Reilly O'Toole.

Special teams session with Alex Golesh

Special teams accounts for about 20 percent of plays in a football game. But it's included in about one percent of conversation about the game. So I sat down with Illini special teams coach Alex Golesh to give the third aspect of the game more thought -- and he gave plenty of thoughts.

How do you approach coaching kickers?

Golesh: “A lot of times, those guys are self led, where I can give them some things to look at. Obviously, I give them a plan of things to work on and then, boom, get it done. I spend time pre-practice with them, but really it’s a matter of focus and execution. With technology the way it is now, we can sit in the film room and really critique the heck out of it.”

With those guys is it mostly about mentality?

Golesh: “100 percent. I think it’s no different than golf. What’s great for Ryan Frain is he got to learn from Justin (Duvernois), who started off really poorly and ended up as an All-Big Ten punter. I think he learned a lot in that last year and a half, two years. Those kickers have not really had that. Derek Dimke was here with (Taylor) Zalewski for a year, and I think Derek was as good as anybody on, ‘Here’s how I handle my business. Here’s how I approach the game.’ They’ve got some good role models in that sense, but as far as someone in that group to teach them how to be a big-time college kicker? I’m talking preparation in the summer to how I wake up and in the morning what I eat, the regiment and how not to overthink the thing. We have to learn what combination of those two guys it is. I’m not a big merry-go-round with those kids. I want to enable one to do it and empower him with the job. I hope we’ll have that ability to do it. ...But we got to be 100 percent on PATs, and we got to be 75 percent to 80 percent field goal range.”

What’s your philosophy on offering a scholarship kicker?

Golesh: “It depends on what you need and it depends on what you have in the program. I’m always kind of late or later on offering a kicker or punter, for two reasons. One, I would never offer a punter or kicker unless I saw them play live. It is so much different than a position where you can watch game film and kind of get a feel. I want to know that kid’s mentality. Me and (Illinois golf coach) Mike Small talked about, ‘How do you evaluate a golfer? Can you just look at a kid’s results and on what courses?’ His answer is exactly what I thought the whole time: ‘I’m watching that kid for 18 holes for four days, see how he interacts with his teammates, see how he interacts with his pro.’ I want the same thing. I want a kid that’s a football player that kick, or a football player that punts. I’ve had a lot of success recruiting those guys. My thought is that before I offer one, I want to see him at camp, but I really want to see him in a game. I don’t care if he ever kicks a field goal. I want to see his preparation on third down. I want to see his preparation before a kickoff. I want to see his interaction with the team. I want to see him fit in. I want him to love weight training. I want him to love being around his teammates, because the worst thing that can happen is a kicker who is just out there on his own that the kids don’t rally around. Because those guys want to be a part of a team and want to be guys that are counted on. I want guys that with eight seconds left in a Big Ten game for the chance to go to a bowl game, a guy that has the confidence and whose teammates have the confidence in him to make it. ...I’ve been around three kids that were team captains. Those are the type of kids I want.

“I love a kid that can walk on, earn his keep. Taylor Zalewski was that guy. David Reisner’s that guy. Our long snappers (Zach Hirth and Mike Martin) are those guys. But I think our situation we’re in with a senior and a junior that’s trying to prove himself still, I think that’s a situation where you have to go out and get one (with a scholarship). A punter that’s a junior (Frain), that’s where you have to find if Luke Nelson can be that guy. If he can, great. If he can’t, that’s where you got to go get one. It’s the same thing with long snapper. I’ve got two juniors, I better get one next year.”

Who are your special teams standouts?

Golesh: “After spring, I left with a core group of 17 guys. That’s what I wanted. I want 17 dudes, guys who are living for special teams. When you travel with 70, you should have 17 guys…”

...who get excited about playing that role.

Golesh: “That get excited, that get fired up. The Jevaris Little’s of the world. The problem is that when you start having injuries and the injuries we’ve had, have been critical, critical special teams guys. I mean, Dre Brown came in and established himself as a guy who could’ve started on all four units for us. Mike Svetina is a guy who legitimately has started on all four units for us. Justin Hardee, people don’t realize that Justin Hardee is one of the best snipers I’ve been around on a punt team.”

Because people don’t think about special teams.

Golesh: “You do not think about it. But early in camp, Cam Watkins has jumped out as a guy. Ke’Shawn Vaughn has jumped out as a guy.”

Do you worry about putting a guy like Vaughn on that at all, since you need him on offense?

Golesh: “Not at all. Ferg (Josh Ferguson) is a guy who sits in my office every other day and wants to be more involved in special teams too. I do worry about that, though. You want a core group of guys that it’s important to. Jevaris Little is a huge one. Dillan Cazley is a huge one. LaKeith Walls, B.J. Bello -- huge, because they’re long guys who can run. The thing that I try to do -- not that I’m revolutionary in my approach to it -- is empower guys as leaders of those units so that they have a huge role. I don’t care if they start on defense or not.

“Some other guys, Zach Grant’s done a really good job for us. Tre Watson has done a really good job for us. It’s continuing to develop those guys because it’s like I told those guys in our special teams meeting to finish it off, ‘Literally on September 3rd there’s going to be 70 guys going to that hotel. If you’re not sure you’re going to be one of those 70 guys, then you be better busting your hump (for a spot on a special teams spot).’ I mean it. I love those guys that are maybes 2s and 3s and maybe that (special teams) is their only role because it’s important to them. Those are the guys who you walk down to the team room and they’re sitting there watching kickoff film, and you’re like, ‘Man, this is awesome!’ They must dig it, because it’s important to them.”


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