‘The Lads’ special teams preview: Bielema inherits strong, veteran unit


Photo Courtesy of David Craan/Fighting Illini Athletics

Punter Blake Hayes goes to celebrate with his teammates during training camp Aug. 6. Coach Bielema inherits a strong veteran which will help in the upcoming season.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

As Bret Bielema begins his first season with the Illini, he has inherited a singular unit already knocking on the door of excellence: special teams. Although often overlooked, a strong special teams unit will aid the Illini in optimizing scoring chances and ball placement when the offense and defense take the field.

Under Bielema, Ben Miller has been brought in to coach special teams. Miller has spent the last 14 seasons as an assistant coach at Air Force. His resume also boasts NFL experience, as he spent the 2004-2005 NFL season playing long snapper, among a variety of other positions.

At punter, the Illini boast one of the nation’s finest in returning senior Blake Hayes. Hayes has a laundry list of accomplishments, including All-Big Ten First Team in 2019, an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2020 and a 2019 Big Ten Punter of the Year award. He also ranks second in Illini career punting average and is the all-time Illinois leader in total punts and punting yards.

Senior James McCourt returns at kicker and should bring a level of stability. McCourt went six for 10 on field goals last season and had an even more impressive 2019 season, going 13 for 19, including tying the all-time Illini distance record with a 57-yard field goal. Last season, McCourt earned an All-Big Ten honorable mention nod.

Behind McCourt is sophomore Caleb Griffin, who has played a split of receiver and kicker in practice. While he hasn’t seen the field much during games, he has made the only field goal he has attempted.

As far as punt returners go, the Illini have a variety of options. Among returning players, Griffin, junior Donny Navarro III and sophomore Carlos Sandy each returned a single punt last season. Navarro had the most successful attempt, going for 16 yards and may see additional playing reps this season as a result.

Junior Khmari Thompson will likely continue to see play at kickoff returner after a successful 2020 season in which he averaged 19.5 yards per return on 12 attempts. Thompson has a background in track, including competing as recently as 2019 while at Missouri. His speed should continue to translate to the football field this season.

Finally, at long snapper, the Illini are bringing back senior Ethan Tabel for a final season. Tabel has been an iron man for Illinois, starting at long snapper every game going back to his sophomore year, including starting the final two games last season on a torn ACL. Should there be any issues with Tabel given his injury, redshirt freshman Aidan Hall may be next in line after playing in two games at long snapper last season. Tabel will need a successor eventually, and Hall is the only other player on the roster with any game experience at long snapper.

With special teams being Illinois’ only legitimately dominant unit last season, it’d be surprising to see much change within the unit. For some perspective, they ranked third in the Big Ten in average yards per punt and fourth in average yards per kickoff. Miller has experience playing special teams himself and won’t need to reinvent the wheel to continue the Illini’s success.



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