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2019 Football Position Preview: Special Teams

Third phase has some serious upside.

Bob Ligashesky is a happy man going into the 2019 season. The most overlooked aspect of any football team looks to be a strength for the Illini moving forward.

There is some potential NFL upside with this year's specialists, with the kicking game being maybe the best it's been in a long time.

It starts with some positions that have received an infusion of talent that will potentially benefit the offense in a big way.

Punt Return/Kick Return

This has been a problem since V'Angelo Bentley graduated. However, with this freshman class, there are some intriguing names that could definitely excite Illinois fans.

Most prominent among that group are Kyron Cumby and Marquez Beason. Speed kills, and these two freshmen have it in spades. Cumby ran a 10.36 100-meter dash for his track team. That's ridiculous. Beason has been timed at 4.43 40 yard time. It's been a while since Illinois had two track kids that could take the top off a coverage unit.

They won't be the only ones either. Upperclassman Nate Hobbs will definitely factor in returning kicks and will most likely be the punt returner going into the season. The electric cornerback has flashed some ability in the past, but he could put it all together this year, provided he stays on the field. It's legitimately exciting to think on what these three could do to turn field position in Illinois' favor.

Punter

Blake Hayes has NFL ability as a punter. This might sound a tad hyperbolic, but Hayes might be the best punter to come to Illinois since Steve Weatherford.

He's athletic for his position, and has excelled at the coffin corner kicks to pin opponents inside the 20-yard line.

He's not perfect, of course. His net punt average was an underwhelming 37.4 yards in 2018. He's also been a bit inconsistent on a game-by-game basis.

He hasn't had many shanks that I can remember, and his long of 69 (nice) was pretty impressive for a sophomore. He will only get better with experience and opportunity. The sky’s the limit for Hayes.

Kicker

It will be hard to replace Chase McLaughlin. As far as kickers go, his 2018 was a special one. He was the offense against South Florida. He improved dramatically from 40 yards out. Needless to say, he was one of the most important Illini last season.

However, the future looks bright with the athletic Caleb Griffin taking over.

Of course it's not guaranteed he will start, as junior James McCourt will have a say in fall camp.

If you watched during the spring, Griffin looked to be the best fit moving forward. He's got an accurate leg, and with some added leg strength, could easily hit from 50. He has the chance to be a special talent when all is said and done.

Not everything looks great for Illinois heading into the upcoming season, but the all-important third phase looks to be in good hands, however. You'll probably see a lot of smiles from Ligashesky at least.