As practice got into full swing this past Friday morning the Illini were working on one of their biggest areas of weakness a year ago, kickoff returns. They finished up 2012 ranked 107th out of 120 teams in kickoff return yardage with an average of 18.83 yards per kickoff return while scoring zero touchdowns.
So, it didn’t exactly shock me to see them spend as much time as they did taking kick after kick to really get practice rolling, and then repeat this drill again near the close of practice as well. If the return game is a problem this season it didn’t appear to me that it’s going to be because they didn’t spend any time in practice addressing it.
As for the actual returners themselves, based off who stepped up first, it appears Miles Osei and Josh Ferguson will be the primary return pairing to start the season. The second pairing was Ryan Lankford and V’Angelo Bentley, and the final pairing of returners was Martize Barr and Devin Church.
Church showed an asset that you just can’t teach with a burst of speed that caught me by surprise. As the drill continued, Beckman was talking to the group standing in the end zone, and he mentioned that Church has great potential because “he gets lost out there” due to his diminutive size when combined with the first class speed he had just displayed. If Church keeps progressing he will certainly be a valuable asset in the return game in a year or two.
This season, however, Josh Ferguson has the chance to turn around Illinois’ disappointing 2012 kick return rankings with a solid 2nd year under Special Teams Coordinator Tim Salem. He has the explosiveness to break one for a TD, and it appears that the other 10 guys on the unit are truly beginning to understand their blocking assignments.
If the Illini special teams can consistently set up the offense with the ball near mid-field, they will have a much greater chance at success each drive because the opposition’s defense will have constant pressure to defend a short field.
During the course of this drill, Head Coach Tim Beckman was standing almost directly in front of me and was trying to maintain a positive atmosphere while joking with the guys, in between barking out directives for how he wanted to see returners break once they got the ball, when he dropped the quote of the day to the group of returners standing in the end zone.
Beckman said, “We are masters of our universe”, and he’s right.
For Illinois to improve upon last season’s final ranking the burden is completely on each player to correct what went wrong a year ago, and every single one of them has to perform their assignment flawlessly in order to truly become the masters of their universe.