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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.