CHAMPAIGN - Just a few months ago, Nate Dirkes still considered baseball his possible path to a college scholarship.
"I've been treating baseball and football alike," Dirkes told Illini Inquirer. "I went to a very elite with baseball as well, but after a while, football kind of clashed. I'm so much better at football, so I decided to focus on football."
Just a few weeks later, Dirkes has a Big Ten football program seriously considering a scholarship offer. The sleeper prospect from Wheeling High School was one of the stars of the Illinois Friday Night Lights camp.
"I was surprised I came out and played that well," Dirkes said. "I kind of surprised myself."
He's surprised Illinois too because Dirkes, who also is a very good basketball player at Wheeling, has been a relative unknown until now. There is no film of him on the internet, a rarity for any level of prospect.
But one of Dirkes coaches at Wheeling is a long-time friend of UI assistant Mike Phair and tipped off the Illinois defensive line coach to Dirkes. Phair then invited him to last Saturday's camp at the Lake Forest College. While Dirkes didn't go through every drill because he didn't have pads, his frame and athleticism intrigued Phair.
The Illini got Dirkesinto pads on Friday, and Dirkes showed the tools that make him a very intriguing prospect. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound defensive end -- who played guard and long snapper at Wheeling last season -- ran the fastest 40-yard dash time of any lineman (4.81 seconds), ran an impressive 4.38-second shuttle and an impressive 9-foot, 10-inch broad jump.
Dirkes is raw as a defensive end -- he didn't expect to play the position in camp and said he has rarely played on the defensive line in high school -- but he showed a solid burst off the line of scrimmage in positional drills and good strength in one-on-one drills.
The Illini coaches, especially Phair, watched Dirkes intently most of the camp. Afterward, Dirkes chatted with several Illini coaches, including head coach Lovie Smith.
"It went from being no one really talks to you to all of a sudden, every coach knows my name and every coach is shaking my hand," Dirkes said. "It feels nice. As a freshman, I was like 70 pounds lighter than I am now. It just feels so weird because inside I feel like I'm still that really skinny kid. I just feel like the hard work paid off."
Dirkes said he will visit a camp at Iowa on Monday and Illinois State later this month. But Illinois has a head start in the recruitment.
"I like them," Dirkes said. "They're really funny, especially Coach Phair. He's a really funny guy. Coach Smith, that's the second time I met him and he just really surprised me with how calm he is. My coaches are kind of intense. It's like a different mentality. I feel a lot better playing with him."
Illinois told Dirkes it will take some more time to evaluate the film and discuss him this weekend. But the coaches told Dirkes they will call him on Monday.
A few weeks ago, a scholarship offer from a Big Ten football program seemed like a fantasy for Dirkes. But the sleeper has shown enough in just a few camps to make that a real possibility.
"I'd be happy to get an offer," Dirkes said. "That'd be awesome. But if they don't offer, it's their decision in the end. I'm just going to keep playing and do whatever they ask me to do."