Most reporters this weekend were concerned with a given team’s offense, their defense, their off field shenanigans and almost everything besides the topic of special teams. This is something that is undoubtedly overlooked and under-appreciated. The Illini don’t need their kick and coverage teams to be ‘special’ they just need to avoid being the worst in the nation.
The special teams unit is arguably as important as an offense or defense. A poor special teams unit hinders the offense or defense’s ability to effectively do their jobs. Last year’s Illini squad showed us that you cannot be successful without a solid special teams unit. Even with one of the best defenses in the nation, the Illini could not pull off victories against high profile teams because of their abysmal punts/kickoffs and return/coverage teams.
I had a chance to sit down with coach Tim Beckman and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to try and understand how they felt about the special teams unit.
I told coach that last year the special teams unit was one of the worst in the country (something he surely knows, but just in case he forgot, I went ahead and rehashed that for him). I asked him about Tommy Davis, a transfer student who graduated from NIU (from the MAC conference where Beckman coached last year) and still has a year of eligibility. I noted that Beckman was probably pretty familiar with Davis and I was wondering what he thinks the return man and safety brings to the table.
Coach Beckman: “Well, we got a proven player, no, not from the Big Ten, but he’s proven he can catch punts and catch with people all around him.” Beckman also spoke on how he feels the special teams need to get more fundamentally sound. He explained that they must tackle better, catch punts better, have much better awareness, hold on to the rock and at the end of the day, take care of all the little things so that the big things can easily fall into place.
Next, I sat down with Nathan Scheelhaase to find out how much he and the team could improve if their special teams game develops. I noted specifically the return game, which could help make his job easier by giving the team better field position.
“Yeah, I think that’s something huge and honestly not a whole lot of people ask questions about that, but you look at some of our special teams statistics from a year ago, the worst and the second worst…you make improvements in that area and you never know how it might change the game. “
Scheelhaase also spoke about pinning teams deep, getting better field position and scoring points on punts/kickoffs. I also asked Scheelhaase what his thoughts were on Tommy Davis and he (Scheelhaase) noted that Davis recently ranked in the teams top 3 in vertical and broad jump testing- something that really impressed the quarterback.
The Illini also lost veteran kicker Derek Dimke, who is Illinois’ all-time leader in FG accuracy, hitting 39-of-46 field goals (.848), and PAT accuracy, hitting all 89 of his extra point attempts, the most in school history without a miss. Additionally he led the team with 64 points in 2011 and finished his career sixth all-time on the UI scoring list with 206 points. Dimke will most likely be replaced by Nick Immekus who is a Sophomore.
When I asked Beckman about Immekus, he told me it’s all about “competition.” He did mention the fact that Immekus came in the first few days of practice and showed some good stuff, but sort of teetered off towards the end. This is not great news for the Illini, who were able to rely on Dimke to give them much needed points throughout his career. Now that he’s gone, it’s vital that they find someone to step up and provide the team with the consistency and clutch kicking that they lost. The offense and defense will definitely come together and do their jobs, but the question is will the special teams haunt the fighting Illini for another year? One thing is for sure; losing the 6th leading scorer in school history is a bad place to start.
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