Aug. 19, 2009
DeKALB, Ill. - The Northern Illinois football team completed the first half of its final two-a-day practice of the preseason on Wednesday, but rain and lightning forced the evening session to be cancelled. One of the focal points at the beginning of practice was special teams. With a very competitive battle between punters Ryan Neir (Roscoe, Ill./Hononegah) and Josh Wilber (Phoenix, Ariz./Barry Goldwater/Phoenix College) and the return of senior kicker and Lou Groza Award preseason watchlist candidate Mike Salerno (Orland Park, Ill./Sandburg/Winona State) the Huskies feel they have one of the best special teams units in the Mid-American Conference.
"We feel good about our kickers and punters as a unit because both have gotten better every day since the start of camp," said NIU head coach Jerry Kill. "They are improving and gaining confidence. We have put them under a lot of pressure and they've handled it very well."
Salerno, the lone returner of the group, heads the special teams unit as a very talented, well-rounded component.
"We feel like we have the best kicker in the conference coming back with Salerno," said defensive backs/special teams coach Jay Sawvel. "He's a guy that kicks off very well and he can put the ball where we want it. He's very accurate on field goals. He made a game-winner for us last year and another to put us into overtime so he's made pressure kicks. He's also great at onside kicks. We ask him to do those three phases of the game and he can do all three very well, which is why we feel we have the best kicker in the conference regardless of what anybody says. Now he has to go out and prove it, but he is having a very good camp right now."
Salerno is coming off his first season in a Huskie uniform as he went a perfect 34-for-34 in extra point attempts, led the MAC with 16 touchbacks and a 64.9 yard kickoff average, and tied the school record for longest field goal with a 52-yarder against Bowling Green on October 25, 2008, which helped him earn a second team All-MAC selection.
"Mike is one year older and he had a great season last year," said Kill. "He's had a good camp thus far and has been focused. I feel like we have one of the best in the country in Mike Salerno."
In addition to his work as a kicker, Salerno also filled in on some punting duties last year with six punts for 186 yards. However, he will serve as a back-up this year as the Huskies will look to Wilber and Neir to replace Andy Dittbenner, who ranks fifth all-time at NIU in punts (209), punting yards (8,337), and punting average (39.1).
"Salerno is doing some punting, but the goal is for him to not have to punt," Sawvel said. "He is good at it though. If he is the best one coming out of camp, we may have to go that route, but we don't anticipate that. Any time you have a guy that is a kicker and a punter you have to realize that those are two different strokes. As a coach you wonder if one swing will mess up the other and so far for him it hasn't, but the goal is for him not to punt so he can focus on his kicking duties."
Leaving Salerno on the backburner for punting has created a competitive position battle in camp between junior college transfer Wilber and freshman Neir. Wilber comes to NIU as the fourth-best punter in the nation according to ChrisSailerKicking.com and last year for Phoenix College he averaged 43.6 yards/punt and pinned 25 punts inside the 20-yard line to earn Junior College All-American honors. Neir red-shirted last season as a reserve to Dittbenner, but while at Hononegah High School he punted 47 times for 1,603 yards (34.1 per punt).
"Punting is one thing that we looked at last year and we were a bit disappointed because we went from being 10th in the nation in net punting six weeks into the year and then later on we finished 60-70 spots down," Sawvel said. "A lot of that had to do with the fact that we didn't punt the ball that well. That is a big focus because we have to punt the ball better than we did. Yeah, the other 10 people on the field have to do their thing too, but the punter position is critical. Earlier in the year last year we were doing a really good job with field position, but we got worse as the year went on.
"Salerno did a little bit of punting for us last year. We brought in Josh Wilber, and Ryan Neir was in the program, so we have some competition there. Josh Wilbur has a very good leg and has a chance to be good."
"On the punting side, we have a couple guys battling for that position and they have punted the ball very well so I feel like that could be a very strong group this year, which is good because they are a very important group," said Kill.
Tickets for the 2009 Northern Illinois season are on sale now at the value price of just $90 for all six games. Discounts are available for NIU Faculty and Staff, NIU Alumni Association and Varsity Club members and senior citizens. A three-game "mini-plan" and single game tickets are also on sale. Tickets can be ordered at www.niuhuskies.com, by calling 815-752-6800 or in person at the Athletics Ticket Office in the NIU Convocation Center.