The punting game is much more complex than some realize. Fans see the snap of the ball, the punt and the runback, but they don't always realize all the nuances that go into this brief but all-important play in football. Illinois struggled with it most of 2008 but is working hard to make it an asset in 2009.
In particular, punter Anthony Santella shows the determination, hard work and overall athleticism to put pressure on any defense. For his efforts, Illinois head coach Ron Zook has rewarded Santella with a scholarship.
"I talked to Zook Saturday before we left for camp," Santella explains. "He said I would be getting a scholarship, just prove yourself in camp. So I'm pretty excited about it."
The Wauconda native transferred from Utah after his freshman year without benefit of a scholarship, kicked beautifully in the Rose Bowl and played all last season without a scholarship. He was hoping for one, but he had to make some improvements first.
"Yeah, it's been awhile. We've talked about getting one, but he said I needed to be more consistent. I need to work on that, and I feel I'm getting that and hope to carry it on into the season."
Santella did better statistically last year, but his mistakes came at the worst times.
"In the previous year I did better average-wise, but I just felt like there were specific times in games where the defense needed a good punt, and at times it didn't happen or times when it just didn't work out well. I need to eliminate those times so I won't put our defense in a bad position. And so the offense can come out in a better field position than the defense did when it came out."
The swirling and sometimes powerful winds in Memorial Stadium have damaged the mindset of numerous punters in Illinois history. And that was one of the factors having an adverse effect on Santella in 2008.
"I've got to concentrate better on the little things. As everyone knows, Champaign is hell to punt in the wind. We had Lafayette and Ohio State last year, and I'd never really played in games that were that bad. It's not an excuse, but I have to learn how to get a consistent punt off in those kind of conditions."
The wind can play havoc with the ball in the split second between the time it is in the punter's hands and when it hits his foot. If the alignment is altered, the kick is adversely affected. The wind affects the punter's balance as well.
"Just the wind crossing your body while you're swiping at it. You just have to prepare for anything, whether it's a beautiful day or whether there's 25 mile per hour winds like against Ohio State."
Another factor is the type of rush a team uses on any given punt. It can alter the timing so necessary for a quality kick.
"Certain teams scheme me like Ohio State putting a certain type of block on us. Zook wants the ball off in 1.2 (seconds). That's why he emphasizes it so much in practice. With the wind or anything, you still have to get it off. That tenth of a second is huge."
Kicking into the wind is perhaps the hardest for a punter.
"You try to get a tight spiral into the wind so you can get some distance behind it. But at the same time, you don't want to punt to somebody like (Jarred) Fayson. You don't want to give him the chance to get the ball. You want a happy medium. With the wind, you just want to get the ball down the field more than anything."
The best punters learn to embrace the wind and allow it to be an ally instead of an enemy. Golfers have the same problem and must learn to accept their situations and make the best of it to succeed. Santella sees similiarities in punting.
"Like golf, it's a big mental game. You must control what you need to control. You try to think that (wind doesn't matter), but when you're back there you want to get the ball off and a huge wind hits you in the face, it's still kind of difficult to block it out."
Illinois' strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez has done wonders with the entire team, including Santella.
"At Utah, during the season we did a lot of agility and stretching out, but we weren't allowed to lift. So when I came here I was kind of embarrassed. But here we do the same thing everybody else does the few weeks before camp.
"My legs are better. I came here after having a couple knee surgeries. My knees were hurting because it was just bone on bone, and I didn't have much strength in my legs. I feel amazing now."
The Illini coaching staff is looking for multiple ways of applying pressure to an opponent, and that includes punt styles. Santella is working not only on the conventional punt but a rollout rugby punt also. He is capable of getting quality distance with both his legs, allowing him to roll out to either side.
"My soccer background helped me out alot. The biggest problem is just holding in my left hand more than kicking with my left foot. So I figure if we're able to do rollout left, it's one of the things to prepare for. It'll open up things for more fakes, more formations we can run. Hopefully, we can do better at punching it to a hole."
Santella is also athletic enough to run and pass on rollouts to either side.
"They want to make sure punting is 100%. But hopefully if they trust me enough to run a fake or two, people will start respecting us more. They won't be sending the maximum on the block at all times. Hopefully, it will work out."
Some might wonder whether any punter should be practicing such a wide variety of things when he needs to improve his punting distance and hang time. After all, Santella may also be the holder on placements in addition to his other work. But he believes there's sufficient time to perfect everything.
"We're on the field by ourselves all day, so there's time to work on it. When it comes time to do it in a practice or game, we can do our thing. We try to keep busy so Zook doesn't rip our heads off. We try to do one thing or another."
Another important factor in the success of a punt is the ability of the punting team to prevent long runbacks. Illinois has changed its blocking scheme this year, posting three blockers in the backfield. It provides extra security for Santella, and it allows more teammates to speed downfield unblocked.
"For protection, it's a lot better. That's the system we used in Utah. It took me awhile to get used to here where it was more conventional. I'm used to it, and it makes it alot easier on the guys up front because they're not coming back like the original punt scheme.
"We've got Martez (Wilson), Rejus (Benn) and Fayson running down there with no one blocking them. If I get at least a decent hang time, they're gonna be fair-catching it or getting smacked. So I'm pretty excited about it."