New punter Fitts in well
RANTOUL – Eight receivers fight for starting spots. Five defensive ends battle. Six linebackers try to impress the Illinois coaches.
There's competition at almost every position on the Illinois football team.
Then there's the punter.
Steve Fitts hasn't even gone to a class at Illinois, but he is already the starter.
He was pretty much named the starter last winter when he signed on the dotted line. Ryan Tabloff had completed his eligibility, and the job was open.
"That was the whole idea," Fitts said. "That was one of the biggest reasons I came here."
Asked who is Fitts' backup, coach Ron Turner joked, "You. Me."
Actually, Turner said, place-kicker Neil Rackers will take Fitts' spot in a pinch. Walk-ons Chad Ruskey and Jake Parrillo are also in backup contention.
When the Illini fail to make a first down at Washington State, Fitts will trot out on the field.
"Certainly, there will be a lot of anticipation to see how he does," Illinois special teams coach Greg McMahon said. "I think he's a mentally tough kid. He'll continue to visualize himself kicking that ball at Pullman. I'm excited about what he's going to do."
It can't be any harder than what he did at South Congaree (S.C.) Airport High School. Fitts rarely left the field, serving the team as starting quarterback, punter and kicker. After getting knocked to the ground on a third-down pass, Fitts would jump up and punt or try a field goal.
"He's not your typical punter or kicker," Turner said.
The Illinois coaches are trying to keep a handle on Fitts' competitiveness. They want him to kick half-speed during some of the drills to save his leg. It's difficult for the former quarterback to not go full speed.
"We want him for Sept. 5, not Aug. 28," McMahon said.
Fitts and the Illinois coaches like his full-speed punts.
"He came in technically real sound," McMahon said. "He's a kid who really works at his craft. He's been coached, he's been taught the right things to do. Now, it's a matter of him feeling comfortable. We're happy with him."
Fitts, who spent the summer getting ready for Sept. 5, would like a bit more hang time. He can tell he's getting there.
During practice, Fitts said Rackers pushes him to improve. Next year, Fitts hopes to take over for the departing place-kicker.
"Right now, I'd like to concentrate just on punting," Fitts said. "Maybe next year, I'd like to work at the kicking job and the kickoff job."