Special Teams means something in the Big Ten. Conference matchups regularly have games like this:
if you don’t like punting, you don’t like big ten football pic.twitter.com/5tQ9sd5Loi— s r h (@sarahsarahtonin) November 21, 2020
Special Teams are an actual phase of the game—not an afterthought, as they seem to be for Alabama and schools in the Pac-12 (USC and UCLA should take note). In a game of field position, special teams matter.
Among all the great Special Teams units in the B1G, Illinois has had a stellar lineage, and boy have we needed it for the last few years. Let’s begin by looking at some of our recent Special Teams stars.
Gone but definitely not forgotten
Blake Hayes, Punter, 2017-2021
Is this the GREATEST punt of all time?pic.twitter.com/mDPNxiVeqe— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) October 26, 2019
Hayes now plays for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
James McCourt, Kicker, 2019 - 2021
Chase McLaughlin, Kicker, 2016 - 2018
McLaughlin has been a journeyman around the NFL, kicking mostly for teams whose starters have been injured. But at Illinois, McLaughlin held the record for the most 50+ yard field goals—beaten only by McCourt, who now holds the record with eight.
Dating back to the start of the Lovie Smith Era, these three names have dominated Illinois special teams. There is a lot to unpack and some big shoes to fill. We know Bielema loves to play the field position game and special teams will be a big part of it.
This year’s squad
Let’s look at punting first. If Barry Lunney can't figure out the offense, the new punter will lead the nation in punting per game. Until the offense finds its groove, that may actually be the case.
Illinois continues the Aussie train with another punter out of Pro Kick Australia. Redshirt freshman and Melbourne native Hugh Robertson is Hayes’s clear successor at punter. The 29-year-old has experience playing Australian Rules Football and followed his compatriot Hayes to the Illini.
Outside of fringe cases, I don’t see a reason why Robertson wouldn’t punt this year, In fact, he already has already punted for the Illini, doing so once against Penn State in 2020.
Junior Kicker Caleb Griffin has been watching from the sidelines the last two years and is the only kicker on the roster with B1G kicking experience. Griffin has played in six games, starting two at kicker. Impressively, he is 100% in his place kicking duties.
Illinois also picked up freshman Will McManus, who played soccer in high school before a post-grad year of football at The Hun School in New Jersey. From what I can tell, McManus has a massive leg and could compete with Griffin for kicking duties.
There is one other player listed as a kicker/punter on Illinois’ roster: redshirt freshman Fabrizio Pinton, who was the #14 ranked kicker out of the Kohl’s Special Teams camp.
Griffin should see the green light against Wyoming on 8/27 with his B1G experience, but McManus and Pinton both have monster legs.
Because we used them so much, Illinois has had some great punters. When needed, Illinois has also had great placekickers. Hopefully, Illinois won’t need to depend on their special teams as much this year, with Lunney leading the offense and the Illini getting the ball down the field. If all goes well, we’ll be scoring more extra points than field goals and notching down more touchdowns than punts each game.
I’m hoping that the Illini don’t use the kickers more than we need to, but if they do, Hugh Robertson and Caleb Griffin should get the job done and keep the legacy of “The Lads” alive.