Mike Woodford will begin his third year with the Illinois coaching staff this fall. While he has had the title of Special Teams Coordinator all along, his role has been expanded recently.
"Coach Zook's in charge of everything and has the final say. I'm a little more involved than before. I've had the title since I got here. Now, we have to have better results."
There were definite breakdowns on special teams last fall, but some pecular and unpredicable events added to Illini woes. For example, two straight kickoffs hooked badly out of bounds. Two kickoffs were muffed into the end zone but run back with poor results when they could have been downed with no penalty. Illinois punts were shanked punts into the wind, and opponent punts settled down inside the Illini five yard line more frequently than average.
Illinois struggled with coverage on kickoffs and punts all year. Opponents frequently began their offense in good field position after long runbacks. Some if not much of the problem was that a number of 5th year seniors graduated, and the replacements were inexperienced.
"It's not a good thing when you lose seniors. But it's our job as coaches to find people who can get the job done," Woodford reminds.
It appeared some special team members began playing tight once they started making mistakes, fearful of repeating them. Woodford disagrees.
"No, I don't think that at all. I think they went out and played hard every week. The ball didn't bounce our way sometimes last year. We just have to fight through that. That's last year."
Those young players will learn from their mistakes and be better with experience. And there will be much more athleticism available for use this year. Redshirted players will help, as will some highly athletic new freshmen. Coach Woody saw encouraging signs this spring.
"It's going good. We're just trying to get the right people in the right spots. Improving coverage, improving protection, trying to increase our net punt, all those things."
Some fans watch Illini kickoff returns and believe they are behaving predictably and running to the same spot every time. Woodford says that is untrue.
"We change our kickoff receive every week. We have different people blocking different people depending on what their scheme is. We might be three one week, double on 4 the next week, it might be middle wedge the next week. There's a lot of differences."
Woodford points to statistics to back up his premise.
"We finished fifth in kickoff returns in the Big 10. Going into the last game, we were third in the Big 10. We took one back 100 yards against Indiana. If we finish in the upper half of the Big 10 in every special teams category like we did in kickoff return, then we'd be a lot better."
There are a number of playmakers available for kickoff and punt returns. Arrelious Benn, Jarred Fayson and A.J. Jenkins will likely get first crack at kickoff returns, and Fayson and Jack Ramsey are the top two punt returners.
"I think we have some great return people," Woodford says.
"Anthony had a great game in the Rose Bowl, but that was over a year ago. He needs to be more consistent. And he knows that. He'll be the first one to tell you he needs to be more consistent. We need more consistency across the board."
Santella has added several new options to his repertoire. He was seen both passing and running from punt formation this spring, and he had some success with it. He has even practiced a left-footed rugby style punt. Woodford explains.
"It's just something we do every once in awhile to throw the defense off. You're always concerned about punting. We always say it's the most important play in football."
Illinois has gone to a different punt formation, using three blockers in the backfield. While it appears the reason is to provide more protection for the punter, Woodford says the formation improves downfield coverage.
"On the old punt, everybody ended up in the backfield. When the ball was punted, everybody was in the backfield except for two guys. On this new punt, you release and run through people and get into coverage. So it does get you downfield faster. If you look at most of the leaders in net punting, they're using this way."
Matt Eller was an exception to the rule last year as he made an impressive 15-20 field goals as a redshirt freshman. He was especially accurate from 40 yards and longer, and he won the Iowa game with his leg. He is getting excellent competition from freshman Derek Dimke, who is getting much more air under the ball than last fall.
They both struggled at times with accuracy this spring, but the Illini were using two long snappers (Tad Keely and Zac Petersen) and two holders (Santella and Chris James). And they faced some extremely strong winds at times.
"Both these guys have been hitting the ball well this spring. I'm not worried about our kickers. They'll be fine."
Given recent history, Coach Woodford is unwilling to go out on a limb with specifics. He knows his reputation is more on the line this year, so he'd rather let results on the field do his talking. But in general, Woody is optimistic about this fall.
"Our kickers are a year older, and we have some good young kids coming in. We have a pretty good base already here. Our coverage should be better, our protection should be better."
If that is true, Illini fans will breathe a collective sigh of relief.