Barring kicking game, Zook still considers special teams a strength

By Daniel Johnson

Even if they didn’t have all the time they wanted to prepare, Illinois football and Ron Zook now have less than two days until their first – and possibly most important – game of the season.

The Illini will have a similar team to the one that traveled to St. Louis last year, but will have to make adjustments to its special teams unit that lost a great deal of experience, especially in the kicking game.

On Tuesday at his weekly press conference, Zook discussed his special teams unit, particularly his kicking game, and what he expected out of the different facets of the special teams game.

“I feel extremely good about (special teams) coverage-wise, I think I feel good about our return game,” Zook said at a frantic pace only a court stenographer could keep up with. “You got Vontae (Davis) and Rejus (Benn) back there on kickoff returns; you got Rejus and Dere (Hicks) back there on punt returns. I feel very, very good about our punting game (now). I think Anthony Santella, if you remember a year ago, we were concerned about our punting game, what was going to happen there.”

Zook took all of 16 seconds to rattle off the observations, barely stopping to think, let alone breathe, before getting to the place-kicking unit, one that has been in question for some time. It shows, with the head coach’s pace getting a little less excited and a bit more concerned.

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“I think the question still becomes who’s going to be the guy kicking,” Zook said, stuttering some before continuing. “It may be good, we got three guys who are all kicking well but there’s a little inconsistency problem, which, you know, you’re going to have in a young guy.”

The problem for Illinois will be finding a kicker for this weekend. Due to Big Ten restrictions that allow a team to dress just 70 players, the Illini will likely only be able to bring two or three of its four listed kickers, Derek Dimke, Matt Brandabur, Matt Eller and Michael Cklamovski, to the Edward Jones Dome.

Cklamovski will likely be making the trip regardless, due to the fact that he handled kickoff duties last year. But outside of him, it is still unsure.

Zook relented when asked which kickers he would bring, repeating the fact that he didn’t know who would ultimately be making the trip.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” Zook said, perhaps once for each possible kicker. “I do know this, I feel very, very confident in saying this that we’ve got a couple guys that can win for us. I’m sure that that first kick or two, they’re going to be a little bit nervous, which I would expect, particularly (in) a game, this is the only national television game this weekend.

“There’s obviously a lot riding on that. I’m not trying to put pressure on them, but that’s what a kicker does … it’s one shot.”