Dominant, consistent specials teams trio announce returns to Illini for fifth season


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Blake Hayes kicks a punt during a game against Nebraska. Hayes, along with snapper Ethan Tabel and kicker James McCourt will return to the Illinois football team next season.

By Josh Pietsch, Staff Writer

Illinois will once again boast one of the strongest special teams groups in the country next year, with three key players returning for the 2021 football season. Long snapper Ethan Tabel, kicker James McCourt and punter Blake Hayes all recently announced their plans to remain with the team for a fifth season.

The NCAA announced before fall sports began that players would have the option to come back for an extra year of eligibility, and Tabel, McCourt and Hayes are three of many Illini to take advantage of the rule so far.

Despite these three players having been recruited by Lovie Smith, who was fired following Illinois’ loss at Northwestern, they will stay to play another year under a new coach. Bret Bielema will be handed a talented trio of special teams players for his first year as head coach of Illinois, adding to the list of players coming back to play for him.

“I really want to be part of the change, and I really want to bring this culture that Coach B’s bringing in,” Hayes said. “When he spoke to us… I was just sold with what he was saying, he was emotional… I felt like he could take this team to where it needs to go.” 

Long snapper Ethan Tabel was the first special teams member to announce his return to the team, doing so nine days after Bielema was hired.

Tabel tore his ACL during Illinois’ game against Iowa in November, and instead of ending his season, he finished the game and proceeded to compete against Northwestern and Penn State to close out the season. Tabel underwent successful ACL surgery the day he announced his return, Dec. 28, and is ready to get back on the field next season.

“Life never goes to Plan! If there’s any lesson from 2020, it’s probably that,” Tabel said via his social media. “I tore my ACL against Iowa. I decided to play on it and finish the rest of the season. Today I’ll be undergoing surgery. This Illini team has unfinished business! So do I. See you 2021! I-L-L.” 

After redshirting his first year on the team, Tabel started 11 games at long snapper as a redshirt freshman. In 2018, he started all 12 games and was named Nolan’s Long Snapping College Snapper of the Year. 

The success continued his junior year, starting in all 12 regular-season games and in the Redbox Bowl. Tabel once again won the Nolan’s award for long snapper of the year and finished his senior year by starting every game again. 

It is difficult enough to get into the NFL as a long snapper, and, on top of the ACL surgery, Tabel felt that another year with the team was right for him. Despite having surgery in December, Illinois doesn’t play until August, giving him eight months to heal before having to snap again in a game.

Tabel’s return should feel good for the Illini, who are bringing back a consistent snapper with experience and toughness. Caring about his team as much as anyone, Tabel is ready to go out and fight once again with his fellow special teams teammates joining him. 

“I will never let this team down,” Tabel said. “I mean, that’s something that I really care about, like the guys on the team, Blake (Hayes) and James (McCourt). They work their tails off every single day and seeing the work that they put in, I want to be the guy that is, that they’re already confident in me to do the job. So I want to go out there and continue to provide them the emotional support as well as giving them a good ball.”

Kicker James McCourt also announced his return to the team, doing so two days into the new year. McCourt is a native of Ireland, and Illinois is scheduled to face off against Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland to begin the 2021 season. 

“See you in Dublin,” McCourt said via his social media, tagging the Illinois football team and head coach Bret Bielema. 

McCourt has only been kicking since his junior year at Illinois but has had an eventful two seasons on the team, highlighted with multiple big moments.

His first field goal made as an Illini, a 53-yard field goal at UConn, tied the record for longest road field goal in Illinois history and tied for the fifth-longest field goal overall in program history. In the next game, at home against Eastern Michigan, he nailed a 57-yard field goal that tied the school record. 

Still in his junior season, McCourt made the game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired against No. 6 Wisconsin, the biggest upset in college football that season. In his senior year, he made the game-winning 47-yard field goal with just seconds remaining against Rutgers, giving Illinois its first win in 2020. 

McCourt has come through when it mattered most, but he never reached the consistency he had hoped for after his senior season. Over his two seasons, McCourt is 19-for-29 (65.5 %) on field-goal attempts. Solid, but not the level needed to kick at the next level. 

He had hoped for a jump in 2020, but after not performing the way he had hoped, his decision came easier to return another year.

“I wasn’t too happy with how the season went individually,” McCourt said. “Not to make excuses, ya know, I never really got into a full rhythm with COVID. It was a big factor in me coming back, just the lack of game reps.” 

Pro Football Focus gave him the No. 11 kickoff grade in the nation in 2019, No. 2 in the Big Ten. McCourt has also only missed one extra point attempt in his career as an Illini. 

A proven Big Ten kicker that has provided in the biggest moments, McCourt is another guy the Illini are lucky to be getting back for an extra season. He is a leader on the team and wants to win, and he will look to make a leap in 2021 that could get him to the next level.

“A guaranteed year of football is something that, ya know, is never really guaranteed, but the opportunity to come back and play football is something that I can get more stats out there and perform better,” McCourt said. 

Punter Blake Hayes will be returning for his senior season as well, completing the return of three key special teams players. 

“One more for the lads!” the Australia native said on Sunday via his social media. 

Not only is he a leader that served as a captain his senior year, but Hayes is arguably the best player on the Illinois roster. 

Hayes has been the punter since his freshman season, starting all 12 games in his first year as an Illini. He earned All-Big Ten freshman honorable mention honors and was the team’s special teams player of the year. Improvement was made his sophomore year, once again starting all 12 games and earning All-Big Ten third-team honors. 

It was his junior season, however, that proved Hayes was one of the best special teams players in the country.

Hayes set all types of Illinois punting records in 2019, and just by watching, it was easy to tell how talented he was. He was recognized as the Big Ten Punter of the Year, All-Big Ten First Team and came into his senior season as Mel Kiper’s top NFL draft punting prospect in the country. 

2020 was not as good to him as the year before, but two fake punts that received national attention highlighted another solid year for Hayes. He wants to add to his game to get to the next level and made the decision to come back fairly quickly. 

“Honestly, for me, it was a pretty easy decision,” Hayes said. “Me personally, I don’t think I’m (ready for the next level) yet, and speaking to people who I value their support, they said the same thing… I feel really blessed to wear the orange and blue and represent the people who have played before me… I wanted to do them a service one more time.” 

Three special teams veterans returning will make for another fun year of kicking and punting for the Illini in 2021. With a team that isn’t atop the Big Ten in many statistical categories, this group has consistently done its job and boasts three great players.

The trio knew they had an opportunity to come back together when the NCAA announced the rule change. After waiting until the season finished to make a final decision, all three players came back both in their individual best interests and to get one more season together.

“We knew we had this option for most of the season, so we didn’t wanna talk about it too much because we wanted to focus on the season at hand,” McCourt said. “But we talked about it and discussed internally what we thought was right, and we wanted to make sure everyone’s decision was in their best interest. But ultimately we decided all of us coming back together, there’s goals we all wanted to accomplish and we’re all super excited to get back.” 

Every year a game seems to come down to a field goal on a late-game drive, and McCourt is two for two in those situations. It is also important to pin other teams deep in their own territory, and Hayes is one of the best in the country at doing so. And the guy that has gotten them the ball whenever they have been out on the field is back to join them.

Bielema has gotten nine players thus far to return to the team for a fifth year, and returning all three at special teams will prove to make a difference. He is bringing back players that are fired up for next season and want to help mold Illinois into a better team in 2021.

“Just having us all back together is super special,” McCourt said. “We all feed off each other’s energy really well, we all know each other really well at this point we’ve been together for a long time… There’s no reason why we can’t perform at the highest level next year and we all have high expectations for ourselves.” 


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