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Position Preview Series: Special Teams

In the first installment of this series, we take a look at an often forgotten unit: the Special Teams

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Do you know how hard it was to find a picture of our punter?! Anyway, Special Teams will be kicking off (punT intended) our Position Preview Series. Before I start my part, this is how the overall series will work:

Over the next few weeks, we'll be providing you with a preview of each position group.  Each article will contain last year's statistical leaders, a summary, and finally a grade prediction--here's the grading scale:

A = of the best in the nation
B = Strong…top half of the conference
C = Average…adequate B1G unit
D = Needs Improvement
F = Poor

Let's get underway:

Special teams can sometimes be overlooked, but according to Tim Beckman they can make or break games:

Last year, we were much improved in this phase of the game. When you think of our special teams you think of one player: V'Angleo Bentley. He is one of the more exciting players in the entire Big Ten. The junior CB/KR/PR will be playing a key role for the Illini this upcoming season.  The other important members of our Special Teams unit are senior punter Justin DuVernois and junior kicker Taylor Zalewski.  As you will see below, the punt coverage team was much better then the kickoff coverage team--this may be because more of the veterans are on punt coverage.  I'm hoping we can close the gap between the units this upcoming season.  All stats below are out of 123 FBS teams from the 2013 season.

Kickoff Returns: 93rd

This is the most confusing of all the stats.  V'Angelo returned a TD in the first game and it seemed like he did a great job the entire season.  Perhaps I had just gotten used to the 16 yard returns that we had under the Zooker.  The team had a total of 1015 yards on 52 (!!) returns.  To put that into perspective, the team below us (Syracuse) had 37 returns in 13 games; the team above us (South Carolina) 92nd only had 36 returns. It's possible that they were taking more knees, but I'm going to assume that their defense wasn't giving up as many touchdowns as we were. Our average return was 19.52 yards, which is right about where everybody around us was. 19 yards is basically like taking a knee, so I guess it was okay. This year, the goal should be to add 3 yards to last season's average.  If we can improve to 22 yards/return it should put us in the top 50 in the country for the category.  Overall, this unit wasn't one of our best, but it wasn't the worst and I see a lot of room for improvement.

Grade Prediction: C+

Kickoff Return Coverage: 113th

This was our special teams unit last year.  There were only 10 teams that were worse then us at this last year. Remember how I said we were averaging 19 yards a kick return? We gave up 5 more yards than that to our opponents.  That's a 5 yard advantage for the other team right there. PURDUE WAS BETTER THAN US.  Luckily, we beat out Notre Dame; I guess leprechauns can't tackle.

Anyway, we had a bunch of young guys playing here and there's a ton of room for improvement.  When all the teams you play against are bigger, faster, and stronger you need to do one thing--tackle.  Not much else to say here.  Expect us to show some improvement here with everyone a year older.

Grade Prediction: D+

Punt Return Coverage: 36th

The punting unit was pretty successful last season.  This is direct evidence of the experience gap between our kick coverage and punt coverage teams.  The veterans on punt coverage propelled the group to 36th in the country.  Part of the difference may also be that we only punted 20 times as oppose to the 52 times we had to cover kicks.  We gave up a total of 117 yards on punt returns last season.  We didn't give up any punt return TD's, but the real stat to look at is the average punt return--we only gave up about 6 yards/return. That's well above average and I think that the team has the potential to keep this up.

Grade Prediction: B

Punt Returns: 16th

V'ANGELOOOOOO! This was by far our best special teams unit this past season.  We may not have won the field position battle on kickoffs, but we sure did on punts.  Earlier I said that we were giving up close to 6 yards a punt return. We were getting 13 YARDS a punt return. That was an extra 7 yards for the offense every time. Also we had the excitement of a punt return TD, which hadn't happened in forever. The problem was the offense wasn't needing anymore yards, the defense was. If we give the defense more yards this year I think we will improve.

The greatest thing about this unit is that there's actually room for improvement.  With Bentley returning (and presumably improving), the unit could improve by a few slots and find it's way into the top 10.  A performance this high would equate to nearly 15/yards a return.  I think Bentley has the potential to achieve that.

Grade Prediction: A

Net Punting: 36th

Justin DuVernois

He was fairly consistent last year, but what I will always remember is some awful sophomore shanks. The offense helped DuVernois (and themselves) out by only having him punt 51 times. To compare NC State at no. 39 punted 68 times. DuVernois' net punting average was about 38 yards.  If our punting game becomes more consistent it will only help our defense; the deeper we can pin the other team down, the better for our defense.

Grade Prediction: B-

Field Goal Percentage: 69th

Taylor Zalewski

Zalewski hit 12/17 field goals last season--he needs to improve.  The Illini will probably be in a lot more close games this year and we're going to need him.  His season percentage was at just .706; this is 15% lower than our previous kicker, Derek Dimke.  Zalewski needs to become more consistent because he'll make a super long kick and then miss an easy chip shot the next time out

There is some hope though, as he hit 8/10 to end the season. Now a junior, I'm hoping he can carry over that success.  A consistent kicker would certainly be a difference-maker for this year's Illini squad.

Grade Prediction: C

Overall Special Teams Grade Prediction: C+/B

Overall, the special teams has gotten better and I expect them to continue this trend for the upcoming season.  Last year we were hovering at a low C, and were just about average in the Big Ten. This year I expect us to improve to a higher C and possibly even a B.