Illinois' Santella kicks it into gear

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois punter Anthony Santella was a witness to his own potential.

Santella had seen himself punt balls 50-plus yards and place them with pinpoint accuracy wherever he wanted constantly over last few years during practice. He knew he was capable. He just needed to find a way of performing the same in games as he did in practices.

With little time to spare in his career, Santella, a senior, has finally figured how to do that. Now more relaxed and confident than ever, Santella has gone from being an impressive practice punter to being one of the nation’s top game ones.

“It’s taken longer than I thought, but I knew what I was capable of,” said Santella, who was sixth in the Big Ten last season with a 41.3 yards-per-punt average. “It was just transferring what I could do in practice into a game. I finally found that niche, and I feel pretty good when I go back there.”

Coming out of fall camp in Rantoul, Santella felt this would be his year, but he knew he couldn’t be positive until Illinois’ season-opener against Missouri. The absolute proof would be in his numbers.

Against Missouri in St. Louis, Santella had to wait for his opportunity. Illinois didn’t need to punt in the first half. Then finally in the third quarter on the Illini’s first drive, Santella took the field and booted the 50 yards. Two punts later, he punted a 49-yarder. On his fourth and final boot, he sent the ball 52 yards.

Santella’s confidence soared from there on.

“It’s all about how you start in punting,” said Santella, who chose Illinois over Michigan State after spending one season in Utah. “It’s a lot easier to drop a few yards, but if you start on a bad note like in Missouri, it’s hard to work your way up, especially because of weather and everything.

“After the first couple games, I realized what I could be, and I try to get better every day. Ever since then, I catch the ball, and I feel like I can punt it 80 yards.”

His punts aren’t exactly traveling those distances, but he is closer to them than most punters around the country. He’s punted the ball 24 times for 1,150 yards this season. His 47.9 yards-per-punt average ranks third in the nation behind Florida’s Chas Henry (49.8 yards) and Arizona State’s Trevor Hankins (48.5).

So what exactly is different? Santella’s explanation is simple.

“Different? It’s just you know I’m a lot more relaxed back there,” Santella said. “I just feel real confident in my ability. It just took a lot longer than it should have to feel relaxed back there. But I trust my form, I trust the snap, I trust the coverage, and everything comes together for good punts.”

Santella’s good punts have meant bad news for opponents. He’s had nine punts of 50-plus yards and has placed six of them inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

“Santella, he changes the field position,” Illinois junior offensive lineman Jeff Allen said. “As an offense when we can’t get the ball moving, we can’t get it down, it’s a big boost to know we have a punter that can change the field position and get our great defense on the field to get us another opportunity to move the ball.”

For Illinois coach Ron Zook, Santella’s punting is just part of the reason he’s been so pleased with him.

“I’m proud of all those guys, but proud of the way he’s matured and the ways he’s kicking,” Zook said. “He does a lot of things. He’s kind of like the leader of that group. He’s doing a great job punting the football, but he’s also doing a great job holding the football for [kicker] Derek [Dimke]. People don't understand how important that is until you don’t have a great one, and he is. I thought [former player] Frank Lenti was the best I’ve ever been around, but I’d have to say Anthony is better than he is. Or as good, let's put it that way. He’s as good as Frank was.”