Most fans don't think about special teams unless they either do something exceptional or catastrophic. For Illinois last fall, every special team unit except for field goals became a source of fear for the players and fans alike.
Assistant coach Mike Woodford is now in charge of the special teams. He coached special teams in the pros, so he has the background for success. But does he have the players to carry out the game plan? He will begin to find out this spring.
It is hard to pinpoint all the reasons for failure last fall, but much of the problem stemmed from the graduation of a large senior class. A number of those athletes played on special teams, including starting safeties Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell and walkons Tyler Rouse and Drew McMahon, all of whom were multiple year performers. You can't eliminate that much experience without some growing pains.
Youngsters make mistakes, and too many youngsters were needed to play on the different units. When mistakes continued game after game, the players lost confidence. They became more concerned with not making mistakes than aggressively making plays. Replacing the weak links served to remind the remaining starters of their failings, decreasing their confidence further.
It would also have helped if everyone had been available last fall. Ashante Williams, Pat Nixon, Jack Ramsey and Evan Friersen are all top athletes who would have competed for playing time but were set back by academic situations. At the least, they would have provided more depth and competiton for the units.
All the returnees from special teams are starting out fresh this spring. They have a new opportunity to learn their roles and develop the hunger and determination to excel at their jobs. The overall athleticism should be improved, so it is just a matter of performing consistently and with confidence.
If last year is any indication, field goals shouldn't be a problem. Redshirt freshman Matt Eller performed admirably in his first year doing the placements. If he continues his improvement, he could end up one of Illinois' all-time leading scorers.
However, he is expecting a stern challenge from freshman Derek Dimke. Derek wants to earn the one scholarship available for kickers also, and he has a strong leg. It will be interesting to see if he's learned to get the ball up in the air quickly on placements, the hardest chore for a college freshman after kicking off a tee in high school.
Dimke ended up doing kickoffs the last half of the 2008 season and did well. But he will still be challenged by Mike Cklamovski. Big Mike kicked off well two years ago but had one terrible day last fall where two straight kicks hooked severely out of bounds, giving the opponent great field position. He may never do that again, and he has a powerful leg also.
Everyone thought punting would be in good hands with Anthony Santella after he averaged 44 yards a punt in the Rose Bowl. But he never found his groove last fall and especially struggled against the wind. Creating good field position is imperative in football, so inconsistent punting puts a team in a bind.
Santella is favored to win the position, but Kyle Yelton is still around and there may be a walkon or two for competition. Jared Bosch will not be joining the fray as he decided to graduate early. His job of holding on placements is now up for grabs as well. Illinois desperately needs a consistent punter, and this competition will likely continue into the fall.
Arrelious Benn handled punt returns and kickoff returns, but he might be more rested for offense if others could take over those tasks. Benn is a powerful runner who is as fast as anyone if he can run straight through an opening. But he tends to slow down when he needs to change direction.
He may have some competition for these jobs, especially from Jarred Fayson, Jack Ramsey and A.J. Jenkins. Fayson ran a kickoff back for a touchdown in last spring's final scrimmage, and he has waited a long time to be eligible after transferring from Florida. He is strong and extremely fast, and he will be given every opportunity to return kicks.
Ramsey was redshirted last fall after a delay in getting his eligibility clarified. He has a special knack for punt returns and can use his speed and shiftiness to put great pressure on opponents. Jack could become a crowd pleaser.
Jenkins ran back one kickoff for a touchdown last fall and may have more in store. A freshman or two may also challenge for these important positions when they join the team in the fall.
Illinois needs to find athletes who can break through blocking walls while staying in their lanes to keep their opponents deep in their own territory on kickoffs and punts. They need a punter who can push the opponent backward and the athletes to prevent a big runback.
Spring ball is a good time to find these special players.