Ramsey, Green to fill in at returner for injured Hawthorne

When the Illini open the season against the Missouri Tigers on Saturday afternoon, the absence of Terry Hawthorne will affect more than the Illini defensive backfield.

Not only was Hawthorne penciled in as the starting cornerback, but the sophomore was also expected to be the primary kickoff returner and help out with punt return duties against Missouri. A stress fracture in his right foot, however, will sideline him for four to six weeks.

“(We’ll) move the guys up,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “We’re a lot better than we were previous years, where we’ve got guys that can go back and return for us.”

Zook pointed to sophomore cornerback Justin Green, sophomore receiver Jack Ramsey and junior running back Troy Pollard as players that will handle kickoff returns. Ramsey joins senior wide receiver Jarred Fayson as the primary punt returners.

“They have all done extremely well,” Zook said. “We have caught more punts and kickoffs than any other year in my coaching career, so we have spent a lot of time on that.”

The special teams unit as a whole will be an area of focus for the team as it heads into the 2010 season.

Last year, Illinois ranked no higher than seventh in all major team statistical categories for special teams, including kickoff returns (ninth), punt returns (11th) and field goals (11th).

“It is something we spend a lot of time on,” Zook said about special teams.

The good news for Zook’s squad is that the team returns senior punter Anthony Santella and junior kickers Derek Dimke and Matt Eller.

Although Eller began the season as the team’s starting kicker, Dimke took his place midway through the season and finished a perfect 5-5 on field goal attempts and 12-12 on PAT’s.

Santella, a former transfer from the University of Utah, enters his fourth season as the starting punter. His 41.3 yards per punt last season was sixth best in the conference last season.

A new face in the special teams unit is sophomore Zak Pedersen, who takes over for Tad Keely at long-snapper.

“We are really proud of him, the way he has come in and handled that spot,” Zook said.

Pedersen was named the Most Improved Walk-on during the 2010 spring drills, and was awarded a scholarship at the end of Camp Rantoul this past month.

Zook also said Santella will continue to be the holder for field goal attempts, and stressed the importance of improving the protection.

“We’ve just got to make sure we protect and cover,” Zook said. “That will be a big thing, (it) obviously has been a big thing. In the last three years, our first field goal has been blocked every year.”