Tate: A special talent required

Tate: A special talent required

CHAMPAIGN — Failed punt attempts played a huge role in two Illini football losses in a 7-6 season.

In a slow-starting 21-14 flop at Purdue, the Illini set up the Boilermakers for an easy 14-yard TD "march" after freshman Justin DuVernois dropped the ball. And the same thing happened with Illinois leading Wisconsin 14-0, the Badgers getting their first TD on a 2-yard "march."

These were the most memorable misfortunes of Ron Zook's special teams, which were consistently bad throughout his tenure. It is safe to say that, when it came to kicking, coverage and returns, Illinois was the clearcut worst in the nation. One astute Internet viewer, A Lion Eye, cited statistics to prove his point that Illinois had the nation's lowest special teams numbers in the last five years.

In his brief run as bowl-game coach, Vic Koenning made special teams a point of emphasis. He went about the job of upgrading the coverage personnel employed by Zook, and he gave the punting assignment to rugby-style kicker Ryan Lankford. Koenning's moves paid off in the 20-14 win against UCLA as Lankford averaged a stunning 46 yards on five punts, Terry Hawthorne matched the season's longest punt return of 11 yards, and the overall coverage was good. Two field goals by Derek Dimke provided the margin of victory.

So when new coach Tim Beckman announced that former Minnesota quarterback Tim Salem would have the responsibility for UI special teams, it drew attention. No aspect of the football program is in greater distress. It is customary, you see, for Illinois to need an extra first down to score because ... well, there is routinely a 10-yard difference in kicking exchanges (not including fumbled punt attempts).

As example, Purdue led the nation in kickoff returns with 28.7 yards. Nebraska came in at 25, Ohio State at 24 and three other Big Ten teams at roughly 23. The Illini averaged 15. They couldn't even get back to the 20-yard line. They'd be better off allowing a touchback. They ranked 120th out of 120 Division I schools.

Punt returns? Illinois averaged 2.9 yards. You can almost fall that far. Northwestern and Wisconsin averaged 15-plus. See what I mean? Two teams in the nation were worse. Illinois ranked 118th after coming in 117th and 114th the two previous years.

Return to respectability?

Salem has served the last eight years at Central Florida.

He appears perfect for his next assignment. Under his direction, Central Florida ranked No. 3 nationally in kickoff returns. Whereas Illinois was likely to start inside its 20, Salem's Knights got a leg up by starting around the 30. Big advantage.

In checking the numbers of A Lion Eye — say it quick and it sounds like Illini — he is right on. He cites the fact that Central Florida has been No. 3, No. 1 and No. 9 in kickoff returns the last three years. That can't be accidental.

He further notes that Illinois has been "spotting opponents 100 yards per game in field position" while reporting that Central Florida has been No. 9, No. 3 and No. 10 in kickoff coverage, whereas the last three UI teams have been no better than 82nd.

And get this number: Central Florida had 906 punt return yards in the last three years, Illinois 180. Put simply, if nobody coached them, if they took the worst players on the squad, if they simply let every punt bounce, they couldn't have done much worse. And over the years they've bungled some punts that were game killers.

Whatever you thought about Zook's clock management, whatever you felt about Paul Petrino's offense in his last six games, whatever negative attitudes have grown around the program, nothing has been as detrimental on game day as the ineptness of the special teams.

Big Ten champion Wisconsin, dang it, was right there to be had. It's 14-0, everybody is charged up, and blooey! The Illini hand over the ball on the 2-yard line. Come on.

OK, now it is Salem's job. Zook tried to upgrade it, failing even after relinquishing defensive duties and giving it his full concentration. When Koenning took over last month he cited a lack of talent to cover all the bases ... but it turned out all right. For one game.

Bring on Salem. He seems to have a knack. He'll play a huge role on Beckman's staff.

Cashing in

The UI's budget outlay for Beckman's aides, which includes nine assistant coaches and three staffers, was approved by the Board of Trustees at a generous $2.8 million. That is well beyond any previous Illini staff. But that's not close to Ohio State, where former interim coach Luke Fickell receives $750,000 as a defensive aide and the total for Urban Meyer's aides is more than $3.5 million. Those Ohio State numbers don't include Meyer, who'll receive $24 million over six years and a $2.4 retention bonus if he is still coach in January 2018.

If the number is accurate for new Ohio State line coach Ed Warinner — $350,000 — the former Illini assistant will receive more than any Illini assistant coach except the departed Petrino. The UI's offensive coordinator received $525,000 last season.

As I've learned repeatedly and to my dismay, it is dangerous to delve into the business of coaches salaries without reading the exact contracts. But when I commented that the squabble over rollovers removed from five UI contracts would probably be moot by January, that appears to be the case. Four of the five have taken jobs elsewhere.

If Ron West has a new job, that hasn't come to my attention. Most others have landed with Keith Gilmore remaining at the UI. Elsewhere, Koenning at North Carolina; Petrino at Arkansas; Joe Gilbert and Jeff Brohm at Alabama-Birmingham; DeAndre Smith at New Mexico; Chip Long at Arizona State. The ninth, Mike Gillhamer, has a UI rollover contract through next season and may be interested in returning to the NFL.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports


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bluehavana wrote on January 15, 2012 at 11:01 pm

I am an avid reader of A Lion Eye's blogs.  Not only do the blogs give honest opinions & facts about Illini football, but also Illini basketball on occassion.  

The real test would be to see if Loren would reference those A Lion Eye entries with the same enthusiam.  Would it be "avid internet viewer" A Lion Eye, or clueless and to be mocked "Gus Phan."

Moonpie wrote on January 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

Say it quick and it sounds like Illini -- more Moses Tate puffery and a not so subtle reminder that he is a cheerleader for Illini sports and always trying to steer fans toward the "right way" to think. He states the obvious and calls it a column.

uofix3 wrote on January 16, 2012 at 10:01 am

A Lion Eye's blog post about the special teams can be found at http://alioneye.com/2011/12/17/tim-beckman-start-up-guide-special-teams-recruiting-schedule/

1 illinifan wrote on January 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

I could not agree more that Salem was a good hire. Could be the best there.

Dan Bloeme wrote on January 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

Hopefully Salem can work his magic like he did at UCF on Illini special teams and make them a real strength rather than a huge weakness. IMO Illini have the kickers and returners.

FYI: According to (Pete Roussel) New Mexico coach Bob Davie has hired former Illinois assistant Ron West as defensive coordinator.



CecilColeman wrote on January 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Is DuVernois still around? Perhaps a class in pottery making would soften those hands.....

Dan Bloeme wrote on January 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Hey real nice jab and dig at one of the Illini freshman players Cecil (rhymes with imbecil). Big supportive fan, huh? DuVernois will be fine next season.

JimOATSfan wrote on January 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Excellent article about the Illini special teams. It really captures this key component of the product on the field as seen or read about by the fan base, and backs it up with statistics (kudos to A Lion Eye for the great research and posting on special teams).

Loren has readers of all ages, not just the avid Illini or sports fan. So when he explains how to phonetically pronounce something, he is telling some readers the cleverness of the word play in the name.  There are some readers who would not have noticed, as they would have been focusing on the other issues in the article.

Also, many posters here don't seem to understand the mission statement of a writer.

It includes creating controversy on purpose, so the newspaper and now the internet site | blogs get readers.  If no one responded to a writer, positively or negatively, then the sports editor concludes that writer needs to be replaced (the Illini School of Journalism used to be in the top 10 country wide. Don't know if Tate is a graduate).

It's that simple, and that is why Tate is indifferent to the accolades and the negative poster jeers.  His role is to write something and in the doing point out any sides of the story he can perceive and explain: good, bad, left, right, etc.  Of course he can sprinkle in his own preferences and favorites just like any other person.  Without personal enthusiams or interests, you might as well get your sports from a computerized auto-writer (yet to be developed but probably a reality one day).

For Illini Football 2012-2013 the arrow is pointing up.  Exciting to learn about the new coaches, their past locations and achievements, the new recruits coming in, the following years' recruits and the new season next autumn.  I think many eyebrows will go up when the Illini roll-out better special teams play and field position next year, coupled with different (and presumably much better) game day decision making.  Will Coach Beckman really get Illinois a B1G & national championship?  Will he get more than one? Will he stay at Illinois for the next 10 years+ when his teams win big?   So much yet to unfold.  Go Illini!

MrHershey wrote on January 16, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Really bad form to not add a link to your Internet source when uploading articles to the Internet.

A Lion Eye relies on hits and internet traffic just as much as IlliniHQ does.


JamesB wrote on January 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Good article.  I was always amazed at how few yards we would get on punt returns.  "you could almost fall that far" is a classic line wich made me chuckle.  I'm not sure how this will get better with a new coach unless the talent is upgraded.


hopefulmike wrote on January 16, 2012 at 7:01 pm

It was definitely poor coaching on the special teams. Take the punt returns, for example. I noticed early on that the punt coverage was incredible for opposing teams. They always had two or three guys right on the Illinois return man when receiving the kick. That lead to fair catches, fumbles, and, most often, just letting the kick bounce and roll. That extra roll doesn't even figure into the poor return stats, but should be considered a negative number.

That great coverage was poor Illinois blocking. Just think for a minute. Most teams employ three deep blockers. That plus the punter leaves only seven guys to cover the kick. Subtracting the punt returner, there are 10 guys left to block those seven. Put two guys on each of the wideout cover guys and there are still 6 to block the interior five protecting the punter. Why not just ignore the punt block most of the time and just block for the return. Only occasionally would it be necessary to attempt a punt block to keep the opposition honest.

DaisyJ wrote on January 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

This money for these coaches is a joke. Just like the tutioin hike annouced today..a joke.

Too many cush jobs, too big of salaries, too much Pension money for them....and when you

go there expect a grad assistant to teach you, not the professor. Sorry, the U of I is out of control.

We could have go Beckman for $900,000, which is double his salary, but the trustees think that

the size of the salary means the coach is good. Ha ha that is a good one.