Illini football special teams positions up for grabs

The punt is the most important play in football.

Or so says Illinois coaching Swiss army knife Alex Golesh.

The Illini running backs and tight ends coach, and recruiting and special teams coordinator, is spending this spring deciding how to replace the graduated Justin DuVernois.

“It’s a big concern for me,” he said.

Competing to replace the four-year starter are juniors David Reisner, Ryan Frain and redshirt freshman Ryan Tucker. The trio have a combined one punt in an actual game in their careers, with Frain booting a 34-yarder last season.

“They’re flip-flopping every day,” Golesh said. “Ryan Frain was brought in here to kick and punt and he needs to step up for us. He’s been on scholarship for three years and never started a game for us.”

While those three have been competing in the first three practices of the spring, a fourth will join the fray once he’s healthy.

Freshman backup quarterback Chayce Crouch was an all-state punter in high school and worked with the punters during his redshirt season last fall. He is currently a limited participant in practice with a hamstring injury that Golesh hopes will be fully healed once the team returns from spring break.

“Chayce has a crazy strong leg,” Frain said. “He’s got some power behind that thing.”

In addition to his punting duties, having a quarterback back deep on each punt play gives the defense an added dimension to worry about on each fourth down. The Illini have used a dual-threat position player to punt as recently as 2011, when Ryan Lankford was used as a rugby-style punter.

“That’d be a big weapon to have,” Golesh said.

Golesh is in his first season as special teams coordinator with the Illini in addition to his current duties as recruiting coordinator, running backs and tight ends coach — although Golesh admitted that the Illini still have one more hire to make to replace former special teams coordinator and running backs coach Tim Salem.

While filling a void at punter is a recent issue, the place kicker position is a recurring one.

Reisner and senior Taylor Zalewski split the kicking duties last season, sometimes even switching mid-game. Head coach Tim Beckman repeatedly said that whoever kicked better throughout the week in practice would get the nod in games.

“It’s always been the same since I’ve been here,” Reisner said. “I’ve never felt like I’m the guy, I’m in the clear. I don’t think he’s ever felt that way, either.”

Reisner was 6-for-11 on field goals last season in addition to missing two extra points. The highlight of his first season in Champaign was against Penn State on Nov. 22 — Reisner knocked through 3-of-4 field goals, including a 36-yarder in the game’s final seconds to lift the Illini to victory.

Zalewski has been the kicker on-and-off for three seasons now, with limited success as well. For his career, the senior is 19-for-30 on field goals and was 3-for-6 last season.

Combined, the two have converted 61 percent of their field goals throughout their careers.

“That’s nowhere near where we want to be,” Golesh said. “We need to be in the mid or high 80s to be considered successful.”

Regardless of who wins the job, Golesh hopes that the Illini have a definitive answer at kicker this season.

“I hope not. I kind of hope leaving the spring, one of the guys takes the job and runs with it,” Golesh said. “I’m not big on doing musical chairs with kickers or punters.”

[email protected]