Woodford's Units Showing Special Success

Special teams play makes up one third of a football game. If the kickoff, punt, and placement teams do their jobs well, no one notices. But if they give up a big kickoff or punt return, or if they miss a field goal, everyone complains. Illinois special teams coach Mike Woodford works to make these groups operate efficiently.

The Fighting Illini kickoff team got off to a bad start this season by giving up a touchdown to Missouri's Jeremy Maclin. Woodford knows Maclin is outstanding, but there were breakdowns that helped his cause.

"They did a good job of blocking us, and he is one of the top returners in the country. Against a great returner, if you're undisciplined and get out of your lane a little bit, that returner's gonna find it. If you get blocked, you've got to get back in your lane. A lot of people think kickoffs are just run down and get the guy with the ball, but there's a lot more to it."

There's also complexity in the kick itself. Against Eastern Illinois University, Mike Cklamovski kicked off deep into the end zone after one score, but it was called back because the TV timeout had not ended. He squibbed his second kick intentionally.

"I think Coach did call a squib kick there. Coach likes to change it up a lot and not let them know what's coming."

Before each kick, a decision is made as to where the ball is to be kicked and what type of coverage is planned for that type of kickoff. There are several variables.

"Absolutely. Sometimes we want to kick it right, sometimes we want to kick it left. Tiger Woods hits it in the rough sometimes. He's not gonna kick it perfect every time. It all starts with the kicker putting it where we want it. We design our coverage according to the kick."

To prevent long runbacks against dangerous returners last year, Jason Reda would be used for high kicks near the sideline to improve coverage and prevent a long return. That has not been the preference this year.

"We feel our coverage is gonna get the job done. So we want to kick it deep, go down and hit someone and set the tone for the game. A lot of times you kick a sky kick, you're giving them the ball on the 35 yard line. We don't want to do that."

Woodford acknowledges his kickoff team needs to improve.

"We've just got to keep getting better. We've got to cover better, we've got to tackle better, and we've got to protect better. I think our speed's better than last year."

The Illini have changed personnel each week, trying to find the best combinations. Against Louisiana-Lafayette, the following athletes made up the kick team: Matt Eller (shared with Mike Cklamovsky), Jason Ford, Bo Flowers, Russell Ellington, Tavon Wilson, Ian Thomas, Cordale Scott, Zach Becker, Nate Bussey, Garrett Edwards and Rahkeem Smith. Scott and Edwards replaced Hubie Graham and Jack Eastman, who played the Eastern Illinois game.

"We're trying to find the best people, and that's an ongoing process. Plus with injuries during the course of a game, or you might want to give a younger guy a look. There's all kinds of reasons why you change personnel."

The same is true for the kick return team. Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Becker, Jerry Brown, Nate Bussey, Conor Gillen, Brit Miller, Sam Carson, Ian Thomas, Mikel LeShoure, A. J. Jenkins and Arrelious Benn comprised this unit for the Louisiana-Lafayette game. Brown and Jenkins replaced Tavon Wilson and Vontae Davis from the previous week.

Coach Woody is happy with the progress made by Eller, both on kickoffs and placements. Eller kicked out of bounds once against Louisiana-Lafayette and missed a tough 39 yard field goal into a stiff wind, but he also kicked a 51 yard field goal and continues to show consistency in his placekicks.

"Eller's done well for us. He's hitting the ball well. His confidence is up, absolutely. That's what happens. Once they know they're the man and start to feel good about themselves, they don't feel so much pressure. But he also knows he can't miss a couple in a row either."

Jared Bosch has done a fine job as holder on placements. And Tad Keely is helping everyone forget graduated four-year starter Kyle Knezetic.

"Tad Keely has done well. We want him to be perfect, so all he's got to do is snap it. He's got to protect a little bit too and cover, but we expect Tad to be perfect in the games. We have Zac Pederson backing him up, and he is doing very well. We try to bring in at least one long snapper every year, usually as a walkon."

Punter Anthony Santella was forced to kick into the wind on all but one of his punts against Louisiana-Lafayette, which ruined his average for the season. But overall, Coach Woodford is pleased with Santella.

"Santella's been hitting the ball real well this year. He's been putting them inside the 20. I think the Rose Bowl did a lot for his confidence."

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