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2015 Illinois Special Teams Preview: Can the kicking issues be resolved?

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Everything you need to know about the team that makes Illinois special in 2015. Because punters are people too.

University of Illinois

Football season is almost here! In just 29 days Illinois will be facing off against Kent State at Memorial Stadium. Over the next few weeks, The Champaign Room will be previewing the 2015 season with position previews, player profiles, biggest storylines, and more. Make sure to check back each day for something new.

First up is our position preview series, where we'll examine the strength and weaknesses of each group on the field. Today we'll be taking a closer look at the special teams unit.

Position Overview

Returning Starters: V'Angelo Bentley (kick returner, senior), Darius Mosely (kick returner, junior), Taylor Zalewski (place kicker, senior), and David Reisner (place kicker, junior)

Key Losses: Justin DuVernois (punter, graduation), Tim Salem (special teams coach)

Other Returners: Zach Hirth (junior, long snapper), Michael Martin (junior, long snapper), Ryan Frain (junior, punter)

Newcomers: Ryan Tucker (freshman, punter), Jonathan Milazzo (freshman, place kicker), Chase McLaughlin (freshman, place kicker)

The Illini return nearly every starter from the 2014 special teams unit, except for punter Justin DuVernois. His leg was one of the strongest points for Illinois last year; he was named to the Ray Guy Awards nominations list after a stellar campaign. But now DuVernois has graduated and it will be up to a committee of juniors and freshmen to see who will claim the starting job.

Three freshman join the special teams unit and all of them have had experience in both place kicking and punting. Given the struggles displayed by the Illini in this department last season, it's never a bad idea to have extra depth. That said, Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner will compete for the starting place kicker duties, and it would be nice to see one of them firmly grab the job by the reigns and not let go of it.

V'Angelo Bentley is arguably the star of this entire unit and an #SCTop10 highlight reel waiting to happen.

Junior Darius Mosely is a solid option behind him, so the kick return game should be a strong point for the Illini in 2015.

As for the Fighting Illini football staff, last year's special teams coordinator Tim Salem was let go in the offseason. He will be replaced by Alex Golesh, who has been on the staff since Beckman's arrival and will now expand his role from exclusively working with the tight ends.

Big Question

Can the kicking issues from 2014 be resolved?

A program's special teams unit shouldn't be the focal point of a season. For the most part, they are expected to produce solid results and should never be a major concern for the coaching staff or the fanbase. Unfortunately, that was not the case for Illinois in 2014. The team's field goal efficiency ranked 121st out of 128 FBS teams and their kickoff ranking was 78th (several of them went out of bounds for penalties). Reisner and Zalewski combined to go 1-for-6 on field goals of over 40 yards, which, admittedly, are becoming more of an extravagance in college football, but they also missed four PATs and three field goals of under 40 yards in length. Their struggles were well-documented throughout the 2014 campaign, but this issue will unfortunately rear its ugly head again in 2015 if something doesn't change.

Ironically enough, the kicking won the Illini more games than it lost them in 2014. Reisner knocked the game-winning field goal through the uprights against Penn State with only eight seconds remaining to move the team one win closer to bowl eligibility, and Illinois went 4-0 in the close games where Zalewski banged PATs off the post. Still, while it's good for your team to win close games in the fourth quarter, you'd always prefer blowouts where little things like missed extra points don't have the potential to come back and haunt you. If neither place kicker shows any signs of improvement at the start of the 2015 season the Illini will be playing with fire.

Key Players

Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner

Can you tell by now that the success of this year's special teams unit will depend on the success of the place kickers? Having a really good kicker can make a huge difference in the outcome of games, even seasons, for teams. Just look at the four teams that made it into last year's College Football Playoff bracket. Ohio State, Oregon, Florida State, and Alabama all had punters named to the Ray Guy awards watch list, and three of the four of them had kickers that ranked in the top ten percent of the nation in FG efficiency. Having a confident and accurate kicker can win you games. Zalewski is the veteran, but he faced major struggles in 2014. Reisner eventually came on to replace him and displayed flashes of ability in "relief appearances," but neither guy could ever take a solid hold of the job. If Illinois is going to hang around late in games this year like they did last season (had the most fourt-quarter comeback wins of any FBS program), the field goal game will be a key piece to what Beckman and company are trying to do in 2015.

Projected Depth Chart

Kicker
1st string Taylor Zalewski
2nd string David Reisner
This is more of a gut feeling than anything else. As documented above, the kicking job is wide open at the moment. This depth chart could easily flip-flop on a game-to-game basis if Zalewski continues to be as inconsistent as he was last year, but I believe he'll be sent out on the field when the first kicking opportunity of the season comes against Kent State.

Punter
1st string Ryan Frain
2nd string Ryan Tucker
It will be interesting to see how Frain performs now that the starting job is his to lose. Not much is known about how good of a leg he has; he only booted one punt last season and it wasn't a good one. His backup, Ryan Tucker, is a walk-on from Chicago Marist and might get some opportunities in the non-conference if Frain struggles. Hopefully that won't need to be the case.

Long Snapper
1st string Michael Martin
2nd string Zach Hirth
Most might expect Hirth to resume his role as the starting long snapper this season, but local product Michael Martin will surprise some people and emerge as the primary LS. Martin filled in for Hirth for nearly half of the 2014 campaign after Zach suffered a knee injury and Martin did very admirable work. As a rule of thumb, if fans can't name their team's starting long snapper than he's probably doing his job correctly. This is one of those thankless positions where you'll only get noticed if something goes awry. Nothing did in 2014, and the entire starting unit returns for this season, so expect solid production from both of these guys.

Kick Returning
1a V'Angelo Bentley
1b Darius Mosely
The Illini usually run both Bentley and Mosely out at the same time to field kickoffs, though Bentley will be the primary starter. Wideout Mike Dudek saw some time returning punts towards the end of last season, but he will most likely be eased back into that type of a role once he returns from his ACL injury. Look for reliable, if not strong, production from the Illinois returners in 2015, and look for Bentley and Mosely to lead the charge.

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