This is the second post in a series on TCR examining senior departures from the 2015 football team, and which current Illini can assume similar roles for 2016.
V'Angelo Bentley was an extremely versatile and athletic player throughout his three seasons starting in Champaign. He racked up over 1,800 kickoff return yards and 550 punt return yards, including several long touchdown sprints. While his senior season was actually his least productive on special teams, he is the only player in school history to return a fumble, interception, punt, and kickoff for a touchdown. He was undeniably one of the most multifaceted and talented players on the orange and blue in 2015, but now he's graduated and gone. Who can replace his production-level on the return teams? Here's three options.
- Caleb Day (7 returns, 116 yards, 0 TD)
Day is the only candidate on this list who has already had some experience in the return game. He was often put back deep with Bentley on kickoffs and punt returns in 2015, and while V'Angelo was usually the one to field the ball, Day had a decent return every once and a while. At 6'2" and 190 pounds he certainly possess the physical ability to be one of the Illini's most athletic players in 2016, but since we've never seen him take over the full-time kick and punt return duties, it's unclear how talented he may be. He averaged 16 yards a return but he only ran back seven kickoffs; those aren't quite the numbers the special teams coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will be looking for this season, but perhaps experiencing the returns of Bentley will help Day develop further into Illinois' go-to return guy.
- Mike Dudek (2 returns, 7 yards, 0 TD)
Obviously the numbers are unimpressive from Dudek's two minimal returns in 2014, but Beckman only started experimenting putting Dudek deep to return kickoffs and punts towards the very end of his freshman season. He'll undoubtedly have many duties for the Illini this coming year, but one of them might certainly be on special teams. It's unlikely he'll start out returning kicks and punts because he's still rehabbing from his injury and Cubit probably won't put him in that position right away, but by Big Ten play of his sophomore season Dudek may be a very special player on Illinois' special teams.
- Darius Mosely (11 returns, 92 yards, 0 TD)
As a freshman back in 2013 Mosely only had one kickoff return for negative two yards (yikes), but as he has progressed into an upperclassman his return game has improved. Last year he returned seven kicks for 50 yards and averaged nearly eleven yards a return. These numbers obviously aren't that flashy, but he's shown an ability to read gaps and has almost busted out a few big returns on special teams. If Dudek doesn't start the year on the return team as he eases his way back from his ACL injury, Mosely could easily be Day's backup or "partner" on kickoff and punt returns.