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Punter Blake Hayes returning for 2021 season

The Big Ten’s best will be back.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 Illinois at Ohio State Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Many key players have elected to return the Fighting Illini next season, the first under new head coach Bret Bielema. We can add another one to the list. Standout punter Blake Hayes announced Sunday afternoon that he’d be staying in Champaign.

The 6-foot-6 Aussie claimed B1G Punter of the Year accolades in 2019, and was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten (coaches) and Third Team All-Conference (media) this past season.

Hayes is the program leader in punting yards (10,811) and averaged 43.76 yards per punt in 2020.

Even with every player being granted a free year of eligibility, Hayes’ decision comes as a bit of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. He was viewed by many pundits, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., as the highest-rated punting prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft. That’s not to say he would be drafted — most special teamers, specfically punters, aren’t — but Hayes certainly has a future playing on Sundays.

Here’s hoping Illinois fans can be treated to more of this:

Also, here’s some pretty fun stuff about Hayes’ teammate, countryman, and backup Hugh Robertson: