Frain a likely choice as punter or kicker, but Illini have plenty of cleaning up to do in phase that was anything but special in 2011.


Freshman Brennen VanMieghem saw the handwriting on the wall -- or the letter of intent -- when Ryan Frain of Indianapolis became the only scholarship kicker in the Illinois football program on national signing day in February.

"The day he was signing his letter, I was up at 5 o'clock in the morning,'' said VanMieghem, a walk-on kicker from Metamora. "It drives me that much more, pushes me that much more.''

While the Illini will give Frain a chance to show what he can do in preseason training camp, a starting spot isn't a lock, the coaches contend. The Illini will decide if its better to use Frain as a punter or kicker. It's just one of the decisions on Illini special teams, one of the worst in the phase nationally a year ago.

Illinois ranked last in the nation in kickoff returns and were better than only two teams in punt returns. Bobbled snaps by punter Justin DeVernois hurt the Illini in two Big Ten losses a year ago, and Illinois must replace reliable placekicker Derek Dimke, who ranks sixth in school history in scoring. He's in camp with the Detroit Lions.

So it should be no surprise the Illini spent a big chunk of the first day in pads working on special teams Friday, but specialists coach Alex Golesh said it could be two weeks before he knows who puts the toe on the ball. The Illini open the season by hosting Western Michigan on Sept. 1.

"We've got to figure out where Ryan Frain fits, whether it's kicker, punter or nothing,'' Golesh said. "He's got to earn his keep. He's been a college football player for five days.''

Frain boomed one over the fence Friday, when he had a stiff wind to his back. Nobody else came close. Frain would handle only one job as a freshman, Golesh said. Meanwhile, DuVernois still attempts to regain confidence lost when he was pulled from the lineup a year ago.

Following spring drills, walk-ons Nick Immekus led in placekicking and Taylor Zalewski was the first-stringer in kickoffs, Golesh said. VanMieghem was also in the mix. The Illini don't have a placekicker with college experience, but Immekus hit the game-winner in the spring game with a 47-yard field goal on the final play.

"We have to figure out if Ryan Frain is the guy, but he has to beat those other three right now,'' Golesh said. "We wouldn't want to punt, kick and kick off with him. We've got to find the best mixture. If it's three guys, so be it.''

Meanwhile, special teams coach Tim Salem is cleaning up a phase handled by former coach Ron Zook.

"We're working on fundamentals, finding guys to be able to catch the ball, finding guys who can run and block, finding guys who have talent in the open field,'' Salem. "Right now, we're improving the individual. If we improve the individual, we can improve the team.''

Redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson, whose speed helped make him a breakout performer in the spring game, is a leading candidate at kickoff returner with Tommy Davis, the fifth-year senior who transfered from Northern Illinois with immediate eligibility.

Senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne is the leading candidate to return punts.

"We're giving greater emphasis on special teams (than last year), according to the players,'' Salem said. "We've got enough guys who want to play and be part of special teams.''

NOTES: Freshman running back Dami Ayoola removed the rookie stripe Friday, one day after Davis was the first to take off the white tape from the helmet in a ceremony before the team. It shows who is growing up the fastest, Beckman said. . . On the juggled offensive line, sophomore Michael Heitz of Table Grove VIT shifted from right guard to right tackle. Alex Hill took over at right guard. . . Freshman TaJarvis Fuller is out with a broken left hand. . . Beckman hinted in the offseason the Illini would use a blue helmet this fall, but any change won't likely come until the 2013 season. . . 

  John Supinie can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.