The Ray Guy Award, which purports to award the best punter in college football every year, has released its semifinalists:
Note the conspicuous absence of Illinois Fighting Illini superstar Blake Hayes.
This is an outrage that will not stand.
Hayes has won the coveted Off Tackle Empire Special Teams Player of the Week award a staggering four times this year (Week 3, 4, 9 and 11) garnering two additional honorable mentions (Week 7, 10). He was also instrumental in the massive Week 8 upset of the Wisconsin Badgers, but was not eligible for the OTE award due to extenuating circumstances.
If you go simply by OTE stats, which are the most reliable benchmark, Hayes should be the front-runner for any and all punting related awards. Here’s three more factors to consider:
Hayes is tied for fourth in the nation with 27 punts inside the 20, one punt behind Ray Guy semifinalist Adam Korsak of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. He beats Korsak by 1.1 yards per punt average, however, and has punted one more time than him if you can believe it. Only Vanderbilt’s Harrison Smith and UMass’ George Georgopoulos have booted more punts than Hayes on the season, and yet he’s averaged 45 per attempt.
It’s for this reason that Hayes is second in the nation in punting yardage, behind only South Carolina Gamecocks punter Joseph Charlton and his 48 yard average on 61 punts. Despite having the nation’s third most punts, however, Hayes has only kicked two touchbacks, an absolutely astonishing number that is among the nation’s elite.
Comparing him to the other top punters in the nation, the “bad” number that may jump out at you is 22 returns for 171 yards. However, this amounts to double-counting the one blocked punt that was returned 32 yards by Michigan’s Jordan Glasgow. That 32 yarder, which is in a statistical gray area between punt return and fumble recovery, is the longest punt return allowed by Illinois. If this isn’t counted, only an 11-yard return by Nebraska and a 14-yard return by Eastern Michigan have gone longer than nine yards. Contrast this to Charlton, a Ray Guy semifinalist, who had two of his punts returned for touchdowns against the underdog Tennessee Volunteers. I’ll take 21 returns for an average of 6.6 yards and no touchdowns over 14 returns with two touchdowns, thank you very much.
If the Ray Guy Award were legitimate, though, it wouldn’t just be filtering people based on stats, right? Surely they would have seen some tape.
I mean, here’s a punt that was technically downed at the 1, but it just parked itself on the sideline right at the 1 yard line.
Oh, but that was Blake Hayes in good weather. That famously calm, pleasant weather we have in the fall in the Midwest, unlike the home stadiums of other Ray Guy semifinalists in places like New Mexico, Houston, Arizona and the interior of the Carrier Dome.
Here’s Blake Hayes in a monsoon:
Blake Hayes with the finest punt of this college football season pic.twitter.com/58NqtGEew1— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 26, 2019
There’s an unassisted punt from the 25 to the 1 in the driving rain. The rain was so bad that Purdue’s skill players couldn’t handle the ball. You know who could handle the ball? Blake Hayes.
Contribution to Team
If the Ray Guy is a holistic award, it should also take into account how much the punter contributes to his team’s success. Those two plays above essentially won the game for Illinois. That punt down to the 1 set up a Purdue drive that ended in a short pick-six that caused Jeff Brohm to panic. In the clip with the bad snap, Hayes saves at least two, if not six points by corralling that snap and then getting off a quick punt under pressure.
At 6-4, Illinois would have its best season since 2010 if they lost out. Advanced stats expect them to finish 7-5, which would be the third best season since the turn of the millennium. Bill Connelly’s SP+ describes them as the 77th best offense and the 55th best defense in college football. How, then, are they 51st overall and bowl-eligible with two games to go?
Special teams ranking: Fourth. In the country.
Special teams play has been a big reason for Illinois’ four game winning streak. Despite allowing big offensive yards to Wisconsin and Michigan State, Illinois stayed in the game through field position advantage. How is this principally gained? With a premier punter.
The rest of the special teams units deserve and will get a writeup, because Jordan Holmes, Devon Witherspoon and Dre Brown have been big parts of it, and of course James McCourt hit the clutch field goal to beat Wisconsin. Ultimately, however, I have a hard time believing Illinois would be any better than 3-7 right now with a replacement-level punter.
Just watch this beautiful synergy, again from the Purdue game that I maintain was won almost single-handedly by Blake Hayes:
Blake Hayes & the Illinois Punt Team pic.twitter.com/1qzNLfvlSV— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 26, 2019
So it’s not just for Hayes’ raw ability or his stats, it’s also about how big a role Hayes has played to his team and about what that role has meant to his team. It’s hard to imagine a more important punter in America than Blake Hayes.
The good news is that there’s still time to make things right, Ray Guy Award. Just acknowledge your mistake and add him to the ballot. Do the right thing.
Or you could just punt. But since you’re not Blake Hayes, it might get returned for a touchdown.