Illini placekicker Derek Dimke at Camp Rantoul

Assuming the Position: Breaking Down the Fighting Illini Special Teams

The Illini work on a special teams formation at Camp Rantoul.

Writing Illini’s seventh and final position breakdown covers the special teams.

In the past two years, the special teams have been Illinois’ weakest link, with the kickoff coverage sketchy at best and the Illini ranked 90th in the nation in kickoff return defense. In 2009, the Illini allowed an average of 23 yards per kickoff return and had one kickoff returned for a touchdown.

While this year’s special teams has more experience than the previous two seasons, there are still questions surrounding this unit, especially in the kicking game.

Kicking Woes

Last season, Illinois’ kicking game was non-existent.

The Illini were 9-16 in field goals (56%), a statistic that was even more embarrassing when looking at how last season’s starter Mat Eller fared before Derek Dimke replaced him late in 2009.

Eller was 4-for-11 on field goal attempts (36%) and made only 1 attempt from more than 30 yards.

While Dimke fared much better last year and should start this season, both players struggled to make field goals early on during Camp Rantoul.

Hopefully things get ironed out before the 2010 season starts because the Illini will need to be able to rely on those points to succeed this year.

The Kicking Depth Chart

Illini kicker Derek Dimke prior to kicking off at Camp Rantoul

Opening Day Starter: #13 Derek Dimke

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 180 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 18 games (13 Big Ten)

Career Field Goals Made: 5-5 (100%)

Longest Career Field Goal Made: 48 yards (2009)

The Backup Plan: #84 Matt Eller

Year: Redshirt Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-2” / 205 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 22 games (15 Big Ten)

Matt Eller on the verge of kicking off at Camp Rantoul

Career Field Goals Made: 19-31 (61%)

Longest Career Field Goal Made: 51 yards (2008)

The Third Stringer: #37 Nick Immekus

Year: Freshman

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 235 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Career Field Goals Made: None

Longest Career Field Goal Made: None

The Punting Depth Chart

Anthony Santella punts during Camp  Rantoul.

Opening Day Starter: #87 Anthony Santella

Year: Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-2” / 190 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 37 games (24 Big Ten)

Career Punts inside the 20: 46

Longest Career Punt: 65 yards (2009)

The Backup Plan: #36 Brad Janitz

Year: Freshman

Height / Weight: 6’-5” / 215 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Career Punts inside the 20: None

Longest Career Punt: None

The Long Snapper Depth Chart

With Head Coach Ron Zook looking on, Anthony Santella prepares to punt the ball at Camp Rantoul.

Opening Day Starter: #46 Zak Pedersen

Year: Redshirt Sophomore

Height / Weight: 6’-2” / 210 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

The Backup Plan: #83 Abraham Oliver

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-11” / 160 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

The Return Game

The Illini have plenty of options in the return games and should be pretty decent in this area of special teams.

Some Illini players who have gotten looks at returning in the past and during Camp Rantoul include junior running back Troy Pollard, sophomore defensive back Justin Green, sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne and senior wide receiver Jarred Fayson.

Here are the statistics on those players.

Likely Kickoff Returners

Illini kick returner Troy Pollard in action at Camp Rantoul

#28 Troy Pollard

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 5’-8” / 190 lbs

Career Kick Returns: 18 for 371 yards

Career Long: 32 yards (2009)

Career Punt Returns: 0

#26 Justin Green

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-11’’ / 195 lbs

Career Kick Returns: 3 for 49 yards

Career Long: 17 yards (2009)

Career Punt Returns: 0

#1 Terry Hawthorne

Illini cornerback Terry Hawthorne secures the ball at Camp Rantoul.

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 6’-0’’ / 185 lbs

Career Kick Returns: 5 for 92 yards

Career Long: 22 yards (2009)

Career Punt Returns: 0

Likely Punt Returner

#11 Jarred Fayson

Year: Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-0’’ / 215 lbs

Career Kick Returns: 0

Illini receiver Jarred Fayson is all for returning punts.

Career Punt Returns (at Illinois): 7 for 41 yards

Career Long: 9 yards (2009)

Some Thoughts on the Illini Special Teams

Provided that the kicking game improves, the special teams is set to have a solid season.

Experienced players return to every position and know what is expected of them.

While a lot will still hinge on how well the line does on punts and kicks, how tight the kickoff coverage is, and how good the blocking is in the return game, expect the special teams to be ready for the September 4th opener against Missouri.

Writing Illini Projections

Derek Dimke takes over the team’s field goals and continues to be a steady shot even from a distance.

The Illini take full advantage of the improved kicking as the offense occasionally struggles.

Santella’s punting average increases by another 3 yards to around 45 yards per attempt, which puts him in the race for All-Big Ten honors.

Even with Arrelious Benn gone to the pros, the Illini will have some dangerous playmakers back to return kicks and punts, and will take 1 to the house in 2010.

Preseason Special Teams Grade: B+

The special teams are one of the most experienced groups to return in 2010.

While traditionally overlooked, expect these players to perform well each and every game, especially with Dimke starting.

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Tags: Abraham Oliver Anthony Santella Arrelious Benn Brad Janitz Derek Dimke Football Illini Football Illinois Fighting Illini Football Illinois Football Illinois Special Teams Jarred Fayson Justin Green Matt Eller Nick Immekus Ron Zook Terry Hawthorne Troy Pollard Zak Pedersen