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Bob Asmussen | Proud alum Griffin expecting banner season for Illinois specialists

Mar. 2—CHAMPAIGN — For six years, Caleb Griffin was a part of the fabric of Illinois football. Local makes good.

The Danville High product did whatever the coaches asked of him, including some work as a receiver and returner.

But he made his bones with his strong leg. He was the team's starting kicker in 2022 and 2023, hitting 14 of 19 field goals both seasons.

Now, he is a proud alum, looking for an opportunity to keep kicking.

Griffin, who has three degrees from Illinois, is still living in Champaign and working out regularly at the Smith Center. This coming Friday, he will participate in the annual Pro Timing Day, hoping to catch the eye of NFL scouts.

For the first time since 2017, he knows he won't be suiting up in orange and blue. Unless, the Denver Broncos sign him.

"It was definitely hard at first when I was first back in the locker room," Griffin said. "It was weird being in here and the team being in here and realizing, 'You're really not a part of this team anymore.'"

Surprised Illinois coach Bret Bielema didn't try to get Griffin a seventh year.

"I don't think I had the requirements to do that one," Griffin said with a laugh.

Someday, after he takes his shot at pro football, Griffin might want to follow in Bielema's footsteps as a coach.

"It is something I'm thinking about,' Griffin said. "Coaching is a high probability for me."

With the exception of position coach Robby Discher, nobody knows the returning players better than Griffin. Using his guidance, here is how kickers, punters and long snappers shape up at Illinois for the 2024 season:

Projected starters: kicker David Olano, punter Hugh Robertson and long snapper Lane Hansen.

Robertson finished seventh in the Big Ten with a 42.7 average per boot. That was 2.7 yards better than his first year as starter. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mention.

"I think that's pretty huge to show his development," Griffin said. "And just his comfortability with being the guy and playing in games. This past year, he had a really good season.

"To be a returning two-year starter has to be a good feeling going into the next season."

Robertson followed fellow Australian Blake Hayes as the Illini punter. Hayes is the best, average-wise, in school history.

"It's pretty hard to step into those shoes," Griffin said. "(Robertson) did a tremendous job learning from his mistakes in Year 1. At the end of the day, punting is about field position and helping the team."

Griffin thinks Robertson will get better.

"There's more for him to get out there," Griffin said. "You're not really going out with as much nerves as you did in the first year or second year. You're really out there free and hitting the ball high and far."

Robertson is also the holder on placements, a job he has grown into.

"My confidence in him as a holder was at an all-time high," Griffin said.

Olano, a Naperville North product, handled kickoffs for Illinois in 2023, which gave him a taste of playing in the Big Ten.

This year will be different for him, facing the pressure of needing to score points for his team.

"He'll take the right mindset into it," Griffin said. "He has a chance to do something special."

Grffin thinks Olano is up for it, both physically and mentally.

"He's a really talented kid," Griffin said. "He has a really live leg, makes really good contact with the ball. His ball flight is pretty true every time."

Hansen, the brother of former Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen, started all 12 games in 2023.

"Long snapper is a critical position," Griffin said. "The best thing is to be unknown. If you are known as a long snapper, it's usually because of mistakes you've made."

Hansen got better throughout the season. Griffin expects another step.

"He's a heckuva athlete," Griffin said. "He can get down the field and help the team im coverage. That's a huge asset."

kicker/punter Fabrizio Pinton, punter Declan Duley and long snapper Aidan Hall.

Texan Pinton came up big for Illinois in 2022, hitting all three field goal tries in a 9-6 win against Iowa, and he went 4 for 4 against Minnesota in the next game.

Pinton didn't have an attempt during the 2023 season and went into the transfer portal. But he is now back with the team and could help as either as a kicker or punter.

"It's good to have competition with somebody who has done it," Griffin said. "Fabrizio has been in the game moments. He's hit big kicks. To have that confidence is pretty important."

Duley redshirted in 2023 after a standout high school career at El Paso-Gridley.

"He's really talented and he's really dedicated to what he does," Griffin said.

Final analysis: Griffin will be missed. He knew the program, the field and the conference like the back of his hand. Six years of experience is impossible to duplicate.

Illinois is building a reputation for developing kickers with Chase McLaughlin starring in the NFL and James McCourt getting opportunities. Now, Griffin is taking a turn.

"The lineage we've created is a pretty good thing," Griffin said.

It helps that Bielema values special teams.

"There are a lot of components of special teams that make a big impact in the game, and I think Coach B understands that and preaches that so we understand that," Griffin said.

No matter what he is doing in the fall, Grifin will be watching Illinois football. Either in person or from an NFL city.

"If I have the opportunity to," Griffin said, "I will definitely come back and be around for a game weekend."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.