The special teamers are usually the unsung heroes of a football team. The special teams unit can have a positive impact whether your team is good or bad — being sound in the kicking game can help a team stay close or help put contests out of reach. Illinois experienced a bit of both in 2019, from game-winning kicks to coffin-corner punts. Assistant coach Bob Ligashesky has done a masterful job of shaping the Fighting Illini into one of the best special teams units in the nation. Illinois returns its starters at kicker, punter and long snapper heading into 2020. Let’s meet ‘em.
Illinois has produced many successful kickers — Neil Rackers, Jason Reda and Derek Dimke immediately come to mind. But McCourt is responsible for one of the greatest kicks in Fighting Illini history. His 39-yard field goal to defeat Wisconsin on Homecoming will be shown on highlight reels for years to come (and he’ll never have to buy a drink in C-U ever again). McCourt finished last season 13-for-19 on field goal tries, including a 53-yarder in Week 2 at UConn and a program-record-tying 57-yard boot against Eastern Michigan.
However, consistency was an issue as McCourt was just 7-of-12 on kicks from 30-49 yards. His 42 successful PATs were only two away from the aforementioned Reda’s single-season record.
Other kickers on the roster:
Caleb Griffin (R-SO): The Danville native served as McCourt’s backup in 2019 but didn’t kick in a game.
It’s rare that a punter is one of your team’s best players, but Blake Hayes can definitely stake that claim. 2019’s Big Ten Punter of the Year, the 6-foot-6 Aussie led the conference in punting average (44.6 yards) and set Illini single-season marks in six different statistical categories, including total punt yards (3,437), 50+ yard punts (22), and touchback percentage (2.6%). Hayes’ ability to flip the field was incredible — at times it felt like he could move the football with his mind as well as his left leg.
A no-brainer contender for the Ray Guy Award, Hayes (barring injury or pandemic) will easily become the Illini’s all-time leader in career punts and punting yardage by season’s end — his 9,369 yards are currently fourth behind Anthony Santella (9,964), Justin DuVernois (10,571) & Steve Fitts (10,671). Hayes is the best pro prospect of any Illini punter since Steve Weatherford and I think he has a long, fruitful career ahead of him playing on Sundays — in fact, ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Hayes ranked as the top punter in 2021’s NFL Draft.
Other punters on roster:
Ethan Tabel’s story is inspiring. After spending two seasons as an undersized backup tight end at Barrington High School, Tabel converted to long snapper as a means to see more playing time. I’d say that decision worked out. The former walk-on started 23 games for Lovie Smith before being granted a scholarship prior to the 2019 season. Tabel started all 13 games for Illinois as a redshirt junior, tallied 4 punt return tackles, and was named Nolan’s College Long Snapper of the Year for the second straight season.
Tabel has yet to have a botched snap during his stint with the Illini.
Other long snappers on the roster:
Aidan Hall (R-FR): Sat out the 2019 season as a redshirt.
Reed Reagin (FR): A preferred walk-on from Valdosta, Georgia, he’ll compete with Hall to be Tabel’s successor next season.