You're damn right we're previewing the special teams. Special teams are important. Not only is it nice to have a good kicker who can get you three points when an offense stalls, but special teams have a huge impact on field position and field position is a gigantic factor in the outcome of a football game.
Seriously, the importance of field position isn't discussed enough when it comes to figuring out what makes a good football team great.
You may not think it, but a team that starts with the ball at its own 30-yard line is going to score a lot more points over the course of a season than the one that does at its own 20.
Improving on special teams could mean another win or two for the Illini this season, and there are certainly aspects of the Illini special teams unit that was strong last season.
On kickoffs the Illini averaged 62.98 yards per kick (second in the Big Ten) and 53.49% of those kicks resulted in a touchback (also second in the Big Ten). The problem was that the Illini kicked off less (43) than any other team in the conference last season because they just didn't score enough points. So they didn't really get to see the positive effects of giving your opponent poor starting field position often enough.
One area the Illini did get a lot of practice in was punting, and they averaged 41.92 yards per punt with a net punt average of 39.20. Which shows that coverage units were pretty damn good. Punter Justin Duvernois also put 19 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
They were also pretty good on field goals last season as Taylor Zalewski and Nick Immekus combined to make eight of 12 field goal attempts and all their extra-point attempts. The problem is that Immekus is no longer with the program and Zalewski was only 4-for-7 last season, and only 2-for-4 from beyond 40 yards. The other problem was that Illinois kickers just didn't have enough opportunities to kick field goals and extra points.
Now, while the Illini were definitely above average when it came to the act of kicking a football with a foot, where the real problems came into play were the part of special teams when you catch the ball and try to set up your offense with better field position. The Illini returned more kicks than any other team in the conference not named Purdue last season, but their 18.83 yards per return was 11th in the conference.
On punt returns the Illini were fucking abysmal, and I do not use that word lightly.
The Illini returned only 16 punts last season -- when they weren't dropping the ball -- and do you know how many punt return yards they managed on those 16 returns? 25 yards. Seriously, that's it. The Illini averaged 1.56 yards per punt return last season.
How terrible is that? Well, most football players are about six feet tall. So if an Illini punt returner caught a punt and literally just fell forward -- no leap, no steps, just falling forward like he was shot in the back -- he'd average 2.0 yards per return. Maybe more if he reached forward.
The Illini punt return unit would have been better last year just falling down.
Now, I don't know who is going to be returning kicks this season, but it will be hard for them to be any worse than the guys who were doing it last year. We are severely lacking playmakers on offense, and in turn, we lack them on special teams.
If somebody could emerge as a viable threat at either spot it could work wonders for the Illini offense in 2013.
Position Grade: C
This grade is reflective of how good the Illini were at the act of kicking the ball and covering the kicks and punts last season. If I were to base this grade solely off of the return units there'd be so many minuses after the F.
2012 Stats And Big Ten Rankings
62.98 yards per kick (2nd), 23 touchbacks (8th), 53.49% touchback rate (2nd), 41.92 yards per punt (3rd), 66.7% FG (8th), 18.83 yards per kick return (11th), 1.56 yards per punt return (12th)
63 yards per kick, 35 touchbacks, 50% touchback rate, 42 yards per punt, 75% FG rate, 23 yards per kick return, eight yards per punt return