Matt Stevens, IlliniGuys Staff Writer
November 3, 2022
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Don’t ever underestimate again the number of elements that dramatically change for the University of Illinois football program following the return of a healthy Caleb Griffin.
The fifth-year junior placekicker was cleared for full work after working through a lower body injury centered on his hip since the 23-20 loss at Indiana on Sept. 2 that hampered his ability to get full torch power on either field goals or kickoffs.
Nearly a month after seeing Griffin doubled over in pain after attempting an extra point try in pre-game warmups before the Oct. 8 home contest against Iowa, Griffin made the trip to Lincoln last weekend to provide Illinois head coach Bret Bielema with options for his offense once they cross the opponent’s 35-yard-line.
“Kicking game, for Caleb Griffin to come back in and do some things,” Bielema said after the 26-9 win at Nebraska on Saturday. “He made some field goals, but what he did in kickoff coverage was like money in the bank.”
Illinois special teams coordinator Sean Snyder confirmed Wednesday that the plan for the Illini’s place-kicking duo of Griffin and Fabrizio Pinton changed immediately. Pinton missed the first extra point attempt after Isaiah Williams’ 46-yard touchdown reception and No. 16 Illinois (7-1, 4-1 in Big Ten Conference) immediately decided Griffin would be asked to do short kicks, long field goals and kickoffs throughout the rest of the afternoon in Lincoln.
Griffin, a 6-foot-3 athlete from Danville, connected on field goals from 36 and 41 yards out and all signs point to Griffin getting all the kicking duties on Saturday when the No. 16 Illini host Michigan State (3-5, 1-4) for a 2:30 p.m. CST kickoff on BTN.
“Caleb is a very strong-minded young man and I’ve already been able to gather that in my short time being with him,” Snyder said. “I didn’t have a worry in the world about Caleb. He has a great way about him where he doesn’t let the last bad thing ever beat him up, so he stays true to his routine.”
However, it was a 52-yard attempt that easily went through the uprights but will never be recorded that mentally got Griffin what he called “back to normal” after missing five of his first eight field goals this season. Bielema called a timeout with a few seconds left on the play call to avoid a penalty before a false start following the timeout forced a Hugh Robertson punt.
“I praise myself as a road warrior,” Griffin said Saturday. “I like going on the road. I like when people are against me, odds are against me. Going out there and hitting the longest kick of my college career, and I hit it pretty well, I knew it was good. I was pretty happy with that. Once I hit that kick, I knew. I was like, ‘Coach, I’m back. I’m good.’”
Griffin’s presence also provided four touchbacks on six kickoffs - which rose Illinois 37 spots from the fourth-worst touchback percentage among 131 Football Bowl Subdivision programs to 90th. On Saturday, thanks to Griffin’s return and the ability for Robertson to bury two punts inside the 20-yard-line, Nebraska’s average starting field position was its own 27-yard-line.
“For Caleb on kickoffs, it’s simply a matter of leg strength and ability to provide hang time in all different kinds of wind,” Snyder said. “We’ll see something a little different than the 5-10 miles per hour we’ve gotten this season on Saturday, so Caleb’s leg strength is critical. And on Hugh, he’s done an excellent job of pinning that football inside the 10-yard-line when we’ve asked him to do that. Those kinds of special teams plays really keep the momentum in your favor through the course of a game.”
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