CHAMPAIGN — Special teams have been a strong suit for Illinois through its first three games of the season, and super seniors Blake Hayes and James McCourt are the main reasons why.
McCourt, sixth-year kicker, recently became the program's all-time leader in 50-yard field goals (six) and has converted three of four attempts this season.
Meanwhile, Hayes, the 2019 Big Ten Punter of the Year, has placed seven of his 18 punts inside the 20-yard line, including one that led to a safety thanks to a little help from his teammate, Kerby Joseph.
"I'll tell you right now, Blake is a magician," Joseph said Wednesday. "Me and him talk all the time, making sure we got our little schemes and our little concepts going. So me and him, we just work together, you feel me? That's my teammate, that's my brother and I love him for life."
Joseph, a junior safety, doesn't grab as many headlines as Hayes or McCourt, but he's proven that he's a valuable special teams player, too. When Hayes boots his field-flipping punts, Joseph is usually the first Illini player to corral the opposing team's punt returner.
Sometimes that means forcing a fair catch or making a tackle. On Hayes' second punt in Illinois' season-opening victory over Nebraska, it turned out to be the latter and a bit more.
After Hayes pinned the Huskers inside their 1-yard line and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt slipped into the end zone while fielding the punt, Joseph swooped in and made the tackle for a safety. Illini fans at Memorial Stadium erupted with joy for the team's first points of the season, but Joseph said the effort he gave on that play and his three other punt coverage tackles this year was developed long before the season opener.
"I got my first tackle on special teams back with (former special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky)," Joseph said. "We played Western Illinois (in September 2018), and ever since then it's just been like every time I'm out there, my heart's pumping and my head's racing. All I want to do is win, so that's just been my drive."
Joseph has only had one major miscue on punt coverage this year. In the second game of the season against UTSA, he was too close to a punt that wasn't caught and when the ball hit the ground and bounced up, it hit Joseph in the leg and allowed the Roadrunners to dive on it and regain possession.
Other than that, first-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema said Joseph has been lights out on special teams and commended him for his relentless determination.
"(He's) a guy that goes hard all the time, and he's literally involved in all four (special teams) units for us and has gained more of a defensive role as well," Bielema said Wednesday. "I think the great thing about Kerby is you're seeing a good player that's manifesting right in front of us (and) is only scratching the surface of what he can be.
"He does have that attitude of a player that enjoys the special teams aspect just as much as the defensive snaps he takes, so that combination is something you can win with it."
Joseph capitalized on his limited defensive opportunities last week at Virginia by snagging his first college interception in the fourth quarter. The play was nearly a touchdown for the Cavaliers, but as wide receiver Keytaon Thompson tried to reel in the ball for what would've been a 32-yard score, Joseph ripped it out of his hands in midair, resulting in a turnover at the 1-yard line.
"The ball was just in the air, and I wasn't close enough to catch it. But I'm kind of greedy, so I just took it from him. I ain't gonna even lie, I just took it from him," Joseph said, laughing. "Everything just happened in an instant moment, and I just was like, 'I want the ball.' I thrive on getting the ball, so I just had to take it from him."
Joseph believes if the Illini remain "greedy" on special teams and defense Friday at home against Maryland, they'll have a good chance to snap their two-game losing streak.
The undefeated Terrapins are led by junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and he's completed 48 of 63 passes for 606 yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions through two games.
"We just gotta be more consistent when (we're) attacking the ball in the air. When the ball's in the air, it's like money. Everybody want money, right? Everybody wants money," Joseph said. "So the ball turns into money, and I want that money every single time."
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid