Kicking Game Important To Illini Future

It seems everyone has an opinion about the Illinois punters and placekickers. Most think they should be machines that can kick to perfection every time, but that is impossible. And most ignore the fact they are individuals with goals and needs. Perhaps it is time we find out what they are thinking.

Matt Eller came to Illinois as a walkon from Jacksonville, Florida, and he is still battling for a scholarship despite being the Illini's place kicker last fall as a redshirt freshman.

He did well last year and has a chance to become one of the UI's all-time leading scorers if he can duplicate his efforts for the next three seasons. He has an idea how to carry the momentum gained from last year into the upcoming season.

"Just stay focused and not try to remember last year too much and realize that it's a new season. I want to try to carry some of it over though."

Eller is still in a heated battle with freshman Derek Dimke for the placekicking role. Dimke appears to be the leading candidate for kickoffs, and he has improved the height of his placekicks. Both had trouble with consistency during spring practice, and Eller realizes he must improve on his 75% success rate to help the team and keep his job.

"The main goal is to get the percentage up. I mean, 15 for 20 last year. I just want to get better percentage. I'm working on making as many kicks as I can and build off of the 15 for 20 last year and reduce the misses."

Speaking of consistency, there was one Illini player who was practically perfect last year. Long snapper Tad Keely got his first taste of varsity action in the Rose Bowl and is now an experienced junior. Keely wants to be anonymous on the football field, which means he is doing his job properly.

"The main goal for me is to be perfect at all times," Keely states. "It all starts with me, but these guys do everything. As long as I get it back there, they're going to do everything all right. Just be perfect on everything, punt and field goal."

Another of the players for whom Keely must be perfect is punter Anthony Santella, for two reasons. Besides his punting chores, Santella is in competition with receiver Chris James for the holder on place kicks. A replacement must be found for last year's holder Jared Bosch, and Santella wants the job.

"We're looking to replace Bosch's shoes. He was a good holder. We've got to make sure the ball gets down and Eller makes the kicks."

Of course, Anthony's other job is equally important. After kicking for a 44 yard average in the Rose Bowl, most felt he would be a long-term solution to the Illini's punting woes. But an inconsistent year provides him with added pressure to perform this fall. At least, he is more relaxed now than when he first transferred from Utah.

"I think I've improved on the most is getting relaxed with the people I'm around. At Utah, I knew that I was going to leave, but now I've been around these guys for 3 years and I feel relaxed. I feel that this is my place."

Santella describes his main goal for the fall.

"My main goal is get acclimated to the new punt scheme we're putting in."

That scheme places three blockers in the backfield in front of the punter and fewer on the line of scrimmage. Despite having fewer players on the line, more can cover downfield. Illinois coach Ron Zook explains.

"When it first came out four years ago, I thought it meant you had some problems. But the thing it does is allow your guys to get down and cover faster. I look for the next rule in college to be like the NFL, when you can't cover until the ball is kicked, except for the outside guys. Now, we can get down there right now, and that helps your coverage."

Anthony is acutely aware of the importance of the punt team to the success of the team.

"We need to realize that we need to put our defense and offense in a good position. It all adds up at the end of the game. With our new punt scheme, I think we're going to win the field position more consistently. We've got guys that are going to fly down there and make plays."

Overall, Zook believes the special teams will be improved this year despite continuing concerns about the punting game.

"I know everybody's concerned about the kicking, but I don't worry so much about it. Those guys will be all right. Both of them can kick. Matt has done it in the heat of battle. He's out of whack a little bit right now, but that's not a concern of mine. He'll get it back.

"The punting game I'm a little concerned about, which I didn't think I was gonna have to be. But I think the one thing we've done with our punting game is we've changed our coverage so it will help us. We've got some guys we feel can be pretty good returners. And I think we've got some cover guys."

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