Western Illinois Illinois Foo

Illinois punter Blake Hayes (14) kicks under pressure from Western Illinois defensive back Andre Whitley (4) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Western Illinois Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign. Illinois won the game 34-14.

Listen to this article

Before the start of Illinois football's training camp on Aug. 2 in Champaign, beat writer SCOTT RICHEY is counting down the Top 50 most important Illini heading into the 2019 season:

No. 16: Blake Hayes

Vitals: 6-6, 230, Jr., P

Hometown: Melbourne, Australia

High school: Brighton

Looking back at 2018: Hayes’ sophomore season put him further down the path to catching Steve Weatherford as the best punter in Illinois program history. The big Australian wasn’t called upon quite as much as he was as a true freshman — 62 punts last fall compared to 77 in 2017 — but his average jumped to 43.6 yards per punt. That ranked fifth all-time for a single season and boosted his career average to 42.7 yards per punt. Only Weatherford, who spent nine full seasons and the start of a 10th in the NFL, was better at Illinois with a career average of 43.5 yards.

Looking ahead to 2019:The best case scenario for Illinois when it comes to Hayes’ usage is to see him on the field less as a punter and more in his role as holder for PATs and field goals. At least that means points are — or could be — on the board. Should the Illini need him to punt, though, Hayes has proven he can be a field position weapon. A third of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard-line last season, and Hayes booted 14 punts that went 50 or more yards. In 2017, Hayes had 22 punts end up inside the 20-yard line and 10 attempts travel 50 or more yards.

Last year’s ranking: No. 9

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).