Placekicker Matt Eller arrived at Illinois from Jacksonville, Florida, in the fall of 2007 without benefit of a scholarship. Going on faith that he could earn a starting job, he and his family paid the high out-of-state tuition for that opportunity.
After redshirting his first year, Eller burst on the scene in 2008 by kicking 10 of 15 field goals. He was especially accurate outside 40 yards. That effort and his continued hard work finally paid off.
"When you work hard, you want to be rewarded," Eller stated. "I busted my butt, I put up with some stuff, and I was rewarded with a good season. And then the scholarship, I worked hard in the classroom and worked hard on the field. I did everything the coach told me to do.
"I feel now the coach has invested in me and made a solid commitment. So it makes me want to work 10 times harder. I don't want to let him down because he's helped me out more than I can explain."
Always confident of his kicking ability, Eller says the scholarship helps him in other important ways.
"It doesn't really affect me on the field. It's more off the field, with how much I can spend on groceries, just to help out on my family. It's definitely relaxed me a lot more. I haven't had finances on my mind. It's definitely great. It's taken a burden off my shoulders. I know my parents are just loving it."
Eller can now feel more a part of the team. Among other things, he can eat with the team at the training table. It's great food, and he doesn't have to pay for it.
"It will be nice to get that dinner every single night. Once again, it's another financial thing. You just feel that much more a part of the team. I do feel not having a scholarship kind of pushed me though. I think it motivated me to work harder. I'm pretty happy where I'm at now."
Eller was told he would receive a scholarship at the end of spring practice. But until then, he was still scrambling to prove himself. A few errant kicks in April caused him some concern. But whatever issues he had then have now been resolved.
"I guess I figured I'd get all the misses out of the way in the spring instead of the fall (laugh). I was being tested a little bit with some of my misses. I think I have the confidence back I didn't have in the spring. Perhaps it has something to do with Missouri right around the corner and the season about to get underway.
"In the spring, my confidence wasn't fully there. I won't make any excuse for that, but it wasn't a great spring. I kicked my butt off, so I don't want to blame it on inconsistency. I feel I wasn't 100%. But now, I don't think we've even missed a kick (except for one block)."
All kickers must learn how to work with their bodies to get the best results. That must include trusting their instincts to do the job properly and not trying to control the body's actions.
"I think the best thing is to think about it the least. Nevertheless, you think about it. If you miss a kick, maybe you think your plant foot was wrong. Maybe I need to change this, maybe I need to change that. You miss more, then you question more.
"My dad recorded some of the games, so I watched those and relaxed about it. The key to kicking on the field is being more relaxed. I guess you could say my style of playing on the field is just relaxed.
"If I'm out there constantly thinking about this and that, that's not my style of kicking. Coach Zook likes to say I'm a loose guy, but it's being relaxed and confident and not trying to overanalyze everything.
"So just think less about it if possible. Don't overthink things, just feel confident with what you have. This spring, I was in a little bit of a tank. For me to come out this fall and have the fall I'm having so far, it's helped me out a lot."
Eller has a powerful leg and the ability to get the ball into the air quickly with a lot of air under it. He has definitely gotten stronger while at Illinois, and that helps. But he says flexibility is even more important for a kicker.
"I guess you could say that lifting over the last season has helped with my leg strength. But distance hasn't ever been an issue. It's 100% possible to increase your distance and height with weight training.
"Lifting and making the legs bigger is important, but so is flexibility. You can't be a bulky kicker and have that flexibility. You have to do extra stretching. Stretching helps with distance, accuracy, height, everything."
Eller's success on the field, and the experience he's gained, have helped him in another way. He is now much more comfortable talking with the media. He's gone from a quiet, shy person to a gregarious sort with much to share.
"Yeah, I guess it's just confidence, having all those cameras and microphones in your face. It's one of those things you have to get used to."
Eller is hoping to have many more positive opportunities with the media over the next three years.