After hours and hours of painstaking research regarding Illinois football this year, we've at last arrived at the third and final edition of my 2013 review.
In part one, I awarded the offense a B+ for their performance and felt optimistic about the future under Bill Cubit. Part two was a rather depressing read, and I gave the defense a D based on their lack of interceptions and poor run defense.
Special teams, the topic under the microscope today, can have a huge effect on a team's record, as evidenced by some of the data to be presented later in this article. One final time, please consider this quick disclaimer before hating on me in the comments:
Please keep in mind that the grades I give at the end will be entirely subjective. I certainly welcome your opinions (including disagreements) in the comments, but remember that these are just the views of one informed observer. My grades will also be based on the amount of success you would hope for from a team coming off a 2-10 season. Everything is relative, so I am not going to be judging the Illini with the expectations of an Ohio State fan.
By far the most exciting part of special teams, punt and kick returns can change the tide of a game in an instant. Illinois cornerback and return specialist V'Angelo Bentley knows a little something about game-changing plays, as shown by his two return touchdowns this year. The first came against Southern Illinois:
Bentley also found success returning the ball in Big Ten play, as he kicked off the scoring for the Illini by taking an Ohio St. punt to the house. These two specific returns were obviously fantastic, but V'Angelo was consistently one of the best returners in the nation. Per CFBStats, Bentley finished the season ranked 7th in the NCAA with an average of 15.75 yards per punt return, an outstanding mark. Even after removing his aforementioned 67-yard touchdown, Bentley would still rank as a top 25 punt returner.
Despite being injured for the Michigan St. and Penn St. games, Bentley was still able to acquire 189 punt return yards in 2013, good for 29th in the NCAA. Of the top 30 returners by total yardage, only one other player reached that level with fewer returns than Bentley, who had 12. Put simply, V'Angelo Bentley is the best returner Illinois has had in a while and appears to be one of the most explosive players in the country with the ball in his hands.
More evidence of how Bentley has jump-started the Illini special teams can be found in the following table, which displays the extreme incompetence of Illinois punt return units in recent years:
|Year||National Rank||Yards per Return|
The Illinois punt return team was collectively one of the worst in the country from 2009 to 2013, as they never achieved a ranking higher than sixth-worst in the NCAA. V'Angelo Bentley is almost certainly the man responsible for such a drastic improvement in 2013. It seems unreasonable to expect an extremely high ranking like that to carry over into 2014, but I'd be stunned if Illinois falls below average next year.
When it comes to kick returns, Illinois did not fare nearly as favorably. The Illini gained just 19.52 yards per kick return, which ranks 95th in the country and third-worst in the Big Ten. Worse still, Illinois returned the most kicks (52) of any Big Ten team, meaning they cost themselves quite a few yards of field position over the course of the season. They would have been much better off just taking a knee or letting the ball roll through the back of the end zone, at times. While Bentley was an excellent punt returner, he only ranked 80th in the nation in average kick return yardage (21.39 yards per return). Having good starting field position for an offense is key, and the Illini would do well to improve their kick return unit before next year, especially since they are forced to receive so many kicks. I'm looking at you, Tim Banks.
Aside from a couple of bad shanks, Justin Duvernois was a decent punter for the Illini this year. Duvernois averaged 41.06 yards per punt, which ranks 60th in the nation, almost exactly average. His punt coverage team was helpful in keeping the opposing returners contained - Illinois conceded just 5.85 yards per punt return in 2013 (36th nationally) and only gave up a single return of more than 20 yards.
Though a slightly above-average team when punting the ball, the Illini really struggled when covering kickoffs.
Kickoffs are widely viewed as typically meaningless exchanges of possession, but they have a large effect on the outcome of a game. As most avid fans of college football know, touchbacks result in the opposing team gaining possession at the 25-yard line. What many fans may not know is how important it is for an offense to have better starting field position than what a simple touchback offers. In "Study Hall", an awesome read that I will continue to shamelessly plug until the end of time, Bill Connelly explains how a ten yard difference in field position can drastically change a team's likelihood of winning:
A team's average starting field position was worse than 24.0 (i.e. the team's 24-yard line) in just 14.1 percent of the 2012 FBS vs. FBS games. It was better than 36.0 just 15.7 percent of the time. In most games, teams were trying to average in the 32-36 range (win percentage in this range: 66 percent) instead of the 24-28 range (win percentage: 32 percent).
Essentially, an average team, when starting each possession at roughly their own 25-yard line, will win less than a third of the time. Kickoffs obviously don't account for the beginning of every drive, but they still greatly affect a team's average field position.
So how does this relate to the Illini? Taylor Zalewski did an excellent job on kickoffs this year, booting 53.03 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks (17th in the NCAA). But when Zalewski coundn't get the ball into the end zone, the Illini were one of the worst kick coverage teams in the country. Illinois ranked 115th of 125 FBS teams in average opponent kick return yardage, conceding nearly 25 yards per kickoff. This is something that really needs to be addressed in the offseason, as it could really help the defense get stops.
By giving up so many yards on kick returns, the Illini are giving the opponent great field position to start with, and greatly increasing their opponent's expected points per drive. A defense as bad as Illinois's was last year needs all the help it can get, and field position is a big X-factor that could be improved with more disciplined coverage. I find it a bit puzzling that the punt coverage unit could be so good and the kick coverage unit so bad, but hopefully this is a problem that can be solved with improved depth in the coming years.
Zalewski finished the year with 12 made field goals on 17 attempts, good for a 70.6 percent success rate (71st in the nation). While not a great mark, Zalewski is still a young kicker. On top of that, three of Zalewski's five missed field goals were from beyond 40 yards (41, 41, 47), which is an acceptable distance to miss from. Zalewski was perfect on PATs this year, booting all 38 of his attempts through the uprights.
(As an aside, I'm in favor of the NFL, and eventually the NCAA, eliminating the PAT altogether and replacing it with an alternative. My preferred future method simply awards the seven points to a team when they score a touchdown, and allows them the opportunity to risk that seventh point if they want to attempt a two-point conversion. The extra point is basically a 99% proposition, and seems pretty unnecessary.)
Brian Fremeau's "Fremeau Efficiency Index" (FEI) ranks all 125 special teams units every year, and his stats have the Illini slotting in as the 58th best unit in the NCAA. This is a bit better than I expected, but that number is boosted heavily by their 16th ranked punt return team. Great special teams are not always synonymous with having great head coaches, but it's worth noting that Nick Saban (1st), David Shaw (2nd), Chris Peterson (3rd), Urban Meyer (5th), Gus Malzahn (7th), and Les Miles (10th) all have their teams competing at an elite level in the oft-overlooked third phase. Those are some of the most highly-regarded coaches in the country, so it may do Tim Beckman's reputation some good to improve Illinois' currently-average special teams.
PUNT/KICK RETURNS: B
PUNT/KICK COVERAGE: C-
FIELD GOALS: C
OVERALL GRADE: C+