While punting is far from the most exciting thing to happen during a football game, Illinois’ Blake Hayes should be one of the nation’s most exciting punters this upcoming season. During his freshman year — his FIRST season playing American football — Hayes started all 12 games for the Fighting Illini, making the BTN.com All-Freshman Team along with receiving an honorable mention from the media for the All-Big Ten squad.
When Hayes started for the Illini against Ball State to open last season, it was his first time playing American football, after playing Australian rules football in Australia. This was no problem for him though, as he was Illinois’ starting punter for the entire season, punting 77 times for an average of 42 yards, the ninth-best season average in Illinois history.
Though Hayes only steps onto the field whenever the Illini fail to score, he makes it as hard as possible for the opponents to score on their next possession, forcing them to gain every yard on their own. Last season, 22 of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line, giving up only two touchbacks. His longest punt of the season covered 64 yards.
If Illinois’ new offense under Rod Smith takes off, we’ll hopefully see less of Hayes, who averaged over six punts a game last season.
While he may not get as many opportunities to display his talents next year, Hayes will be a critical component towards the Illini’s success, giving the defense great positioning in order to get stops. Though his role is often overlooked, Blake Hayes is definitely an Illini to watch out for this season.