Illini special teams have impressed in 2013

By By: Stephen Bourbon

While offense is the sexier side of the ball, and defense is where the tough guys play, not much is made of special teams in college football.

But, on the field for just a handful of plays per game, the special teams can swing a game one way or another.

In the past few years, the Illini hadn’t taken advantage of the special teams units, always ranking near the bottom of the country in kickoff and punt return yards.

Not this year.

Last Saturday against No. 3 Ohio State, the Illini looked dead in the water, down 28-0 in the second quarter. After forcing a rare Buckeyes punt, Illinois cornerback V’Angelo Bentley and wide receiver Miles Osei set up back deep to return. The Illini use the duo on both kicks and punt return units, which have seen an uptick in production this year.

The ball was punted much further than the pair expected, a whopping 64 yards on the fly, forcing Bentley to turn completely around and catch the ball over his shoulder.

“I knew where the gunner was,” Bentley said. “When I caught it, I looked to my right and came back to the left, just to freeze him a little bit. I knew once I got past him, it was all about making some guys miss and getting north and south.”

With the punt return touchdown, Bentley became the first Illini player since 2003 to return a punt back for a touchdown. Combine that with his 100-yard kick return for a touchdown against Southern Illinois in the first game of the year, and Bentley is the first player in school history to have both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown in the same season.

“It means a lot,” Bentley said. “My high school coach always told me to put my name on something, so I’d be the first guy in history to do it, it’s a big accomplishment.”

This season, the Illini average 14.4 yards per punt return and 19.5 yard per kick return, ranking 12th and 95th in the nation, respectively. Illinois averaged 1.6 yard per punt return and 18.8 yard per kick return in 2012 and similarly low numbers in 2011: 2.4 and 15.7, respectively.

“Our ultimate goal is to get 10 yards every time we touch the ball,” Osei said. “I think me and V back there, our expectations are a little higher. We expect to make a difference.”

While special teams coordinator Tim Salem said special teams are only “16 to 18 percent of the plays,” the importance of shifting field position is at stake every time. In the Ohio State game, each punter had a punt over 60 yards — Ohio State’s Cameron Johnson booted a 71-yard punt — and those shifted the field position in favor of the kicking team.

“The unique thing about special teams is unlike offense or defense, where it’s first down, second down, third down, you go out there and it’s one chance,” Salem said. “You get one chance, it’s a one-play possession.”

Head coach Tim Beckman said there is a correlation between winning and solid play in the special teams game. The Illinois coaching staff charts all five phases of special teams: punting, punt return, kickoff, kick return and field goals, and combines all those into a ranking system. Not surprisingly, undefeated Ohio State ranked at the top of the conference in the chart.

“Special teams are crucial,” Beckman said. “It’s about manufacturing field position.”

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.