Special teams play is an extremely important part of a football game, but it is often overlooked. Historically, football was named for its emphasis on kicking an oblong ball, and early games relied almost entirely on field position and perhaps a winning field goal. Now, the kicking game is only discussed when mistakes are made.
The University of Illinois graduated one of its best ever punters in Steve Weatherford last year, and he is now a starter with the New Orleans Saints. While Steve made an occasional bad punt, his excellent yardage average and hang time did much to aid the Illini cause. There is no doubt he will be missed.
Freshman Kyle Yelton is the heir apparent, and he had the benefit of enrolling for second semester last year and punting in the Spring Game. This was not one of his finer days, as he was undoubtedly influenced by the crowd and the swirling winds in Memorial Stadium. As is true of all freshmen, including Weatherford, Kyle will have to undergo a maturation process that at times will be frustrating to watch. But Yelton has definite potential for the role.
Kyle has a strong leg. His best kicks are around 45 yards with outstanding hang time. And he is learning quickly the two step approach Coach Zook requires to get the punt off ahead of the rush. The key for Kyle is to become consistent in his efforts. It appears to these eyes he sometimes releases the ball from his hand unevenly, causing the front point of the ball to drop. When this happens, it careens off his foot producing a knuckleball instead of spiral. He is likely working so hard on a quick release that the drop has become inconsistent.
Regardless, it is hoped Illini fans will show patience for Kyle. He will make mistakes, but these will diminish as he gains experience and relaxes confidently into his job. Booing a bad punt makes things worse rather than better. If fans can accept the occasional inconsistency without judgment, they will likely be rewarded with a quality 4-year punter.
Mahomet walkon Jared Bosch shows a strong leg and appears to be Yelton's backup at this time. Also a freshman, Bosch will occasionally get off a boomer that may travel in excess of 50 yards, but the height of these kicks is less than those produced by Kyle Yelton. Since a good hang time and quality coverage by the punt team prevent long runbacks, Yelton has an advantage at this time. Regardless, Bosch is available should injury necessitate it.
Jason Reda could also punt, as he has developed a great deal of strength in his kicking leg. But Jason's main job is placekicking. Now a junior, Reda is finally showing the consistency in practice to make him a definite threat. Jason boomed a 52-yarder in the first Rantoul scrimmage that travelled at least ten yards beyond the goal posts, and without a favoring wind.
Coaches want Reda to create a high success rate and may not ask him to extend his range beyond 45 yards except on rare occasions, but his leg is definitely strong enough for the long ones. And he consistently makes nearly everything he attempts from the 30 yard line on in. He is backed up by walkon Jacob Hendee, a freshman from Easton, Kansas.
Reda also handled kickoffs in the spring, and he consistently kicked to the goal line and beyond. But it now appears he will be able to concentrate solely on placekicks, due in large part to walkon Michael Cklamovski. The 260-pounder out of Willow Springs has a strong leg and has received most of the reps in practice.
A major asset for the Illini kicking game is junior Kyle Knezetic. The only football player ever recruited and given a four-year scholarship specifically to long snap, Kyle has exceptional consistency and speed of snap. The faster the snap reaches the punter or holder, the less likely the kick will be blocked. Knezetic is becoming one of the best ever Illini at this important position.
It will also be interesting to see who Illini coaches place on the different special teams besides the kickers. For punt returns, EB Halsey may have the upper hand because of his outstanding hands and experience in the role. There are several others who can make things happen on punt returns, including Will Judson, Chris Duvalt, DaJuan Warren, and Spencer Jensen. But it may be Halsey's job to lose as he catches everything near him and makes few mistakes.
Kick returners include running backs Pierre Thomas, Halsey, Rashard Mendenhall and Charles Bailey. In addition, Duvalt has shown some excellent burst returning kicks, and several others are also being tried there. With the improved speed on the team this year, Illini coaches have some quality options. But Thomas impressed consistently last year, so he will likely man one spot barring injury or a need to save him for offense.
Youngsters with speed will be numerous on the kickoff, punt and punt block teams. Several freshmen are vying for spots on these teams, and this can be a way of utilizing their athleticism while giving them the experience needed to relax into bigger roles later in their careers. Coach Zook times squadmen for how fast they move from the line of scrimmage to the punter, and from the kickoff line to the endzone, and those with the fastest times and best aggressiveness will play. With the improvement in athleticism this year, Illini fans might just see an occasional punt block or long runback, and they will see better coverage to prevent long runbacks by opponents.
The special teams focus provided by former NFL special teams coach Zook and his assistants should begin to pay dividends this year. There is great hope that Jason Reda can be the reliable scorer Illinois needs to pull out close games, and there is potential for quick scores from the punt and kickoff return squads.
It is difficult to expect perfection from freshmen, and Illinois will rely on freshmen for punts and kickoffs. The freshman Yelton may struggle at times, so this remains a concern. If the punt team can do its job consistently, Illinois can win a number of special teams battles this year.