Solid special teams
The special teams phase of football is often overlooked and ignored by most fans -- until a big return or touchdown occurs, of course. Each of the five phases can determine the outcome of the game with a win or loss.
For most teams, controlling the field position battle can increase their chances of winning the game.
Like in the NFL though, college football has adjusted their rules for the safety of the players. For example, if a touchback occurs, the football is set at the 25-yard line instead of the 20. Those occur even more often now since the kickoff was moved from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line.
Despite these changes, special teams still can swing a game, and Bob Ligashesky's special teams corps looked promising in Week One.
The Illini kickoff coverage unit versus Murray State set the tone for the team.The main objective for every kickoff team in college or the NFL, is to hold the kick returner to 20 yards or less. The Illini held Racers to 17.0 yards per kickoff return.
Kickoff man Ryan Frain had four toucbacks on nine kickoffs. The first kickoff of the season made it to the end zone, but the Racers D'Montre Wade decided to bring the ball out and failed to make it to the 25-yard line.
In the following play, Murray State attempted to set up a left return across the field since Frain kicked it to the right. Directional returns are set up to get the coverage unit out of position just enough to wall off the defenders to create a crease. DB Dillan Cazley (No. 8) initially disrupted the return by colliding with the upback Marquez Sandford, while DB Chris James (12) was able to slip his block to trip up Wade and DB Darwyn Kelly (4) finished off the tackle at the 19-yard line.
Defensively, the Illini are led by a dominant defensive line, which should help with the inexperience of the LBs and DBs. Illinois recorded an interception on the second play of the game due to the good mental processing of strong saffety Julian Hylton, who was making his first career start.
Hylton diagnosed 11/Diamond Personnel (1 RB-1 TE-3 WR) that morphed into a 10/Spread (1 RB-0 TE-4 WR) formation with TE Jesse Blackburn inverted (on the line of scrimmage) in the slot. Hylton knew Blackburn was QB KD Humphries' go-to receiver in critical situations. The Illini countered with press-man coverage with FS Taylor Barton over the top and assisting on the most dangerous route. Hylton aligned on the outside and allowed Blackburn to release freely inside with Barton over the top. Humphries did not anticipate Hylton's athletic ability to bait, under-cut the seam shot and high point the INT for the first of three Illini takeaways. This is why Lovie Smith sides with athleticism and paly-making ability over experience.
Ups and downs for OL
Lastly, the offensive line had three new starters and displayed very good competitive toughness. Nick Allegretti, who normally aligns at strongside guard, played center. Darta Lee, a true freshman, aligned at strongside guard, redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson aligned at the quickside guard, and junior Jordan Fagan saw time at quickside guard too.
The OL had some poor moments when they allowed a lot of penetration, causing the run game to stall. However, the OL unit as a whole sustained their blocks long enough to create some explosion runs.(runs of 10 yards or more). For example, on RB Kendrick Foster's first 56 yard TD, it was 2nd-and-9 and the offense came out in 11/Diamond Personnel (1 RB-1 TE-3 WR) with tight end Caleb Reams attached to the line of scrimmage to the widest part of the field.
There were three key blocks that created a running land for Foster. Fagan pulled and trapped the end man on the line of scrimmage, Reams secured a second-level block by walling off middle linebacker Lamont Crittendon and receiver Zach Grant picked up a block in the slot.
This Saturday provides a much bigger test for Illinois. I anticipate North Carolina will play a much better game than it did against Georgia with limited penalties. Larry Fedora will rely on the punt and kick return teams to establish field position. Fedora should expand the playbook for QB Mitch Trubisky in his second game, and he will rely heavily on the running game with RBs T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood. Also, he will manufacture some explosive plays out of the passing game by stretching the field with both Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer.
UNC Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik will enter Champaign in "attack mode." He will run DL stunts/games to confuse the Illini O-Line. Chizik will also pressure QB Wes Lunt from multiple angles to move him off the spot and try to force him to throw interceptions or incompletions. In order for Lunt to be the catalyst, he will need to demonstrate good poise in the pocket under duress, anticipate where the receivers will be in man/zone coverages to complete passes. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee should run the ball just enough with Foster and Ke'Shawn Vaughn to counter UNC's blitz packages. This will help Lunt lead the Illini to an upset victory Saturday night.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.