Sophomore Derek Dimke kicked off throughout most of his freshman season, and he has been the only kicker in that capacity for Illinois this fall. He has stabilized the kickoff team, allowing good kick coverage and no kick returns for touchdowns. He even recovered a fumbled kickoff.
A walkon from Rockford Boylan, Dimke was given a scholarship prior to this season. He has been competing with Matt Eller for the placekicking assignment, but Eller was sensational last year, hitting 15 of 20 field goals and scoring 84 points.
Eller struggled this fall, forcing Illinois coach Ron Zook to turn to Dimke in the Northwestern game. Dimke nailed a 30 yarder in his only opportunity and will likely be the kicker for the Cincinnati game. While the youngster was glad to get his opportunity, his sadness over the loss to the Wildcats dominated his thinking.
"Whatever I can do to help out the team is what it's all about," Dimke stated. "What's important is that the team does well."
Dimke struggled getting air under his kicks as a freshman, but improved technique has solved that problem. One year has made a world of difference for him.
"Having the experience, I wouldn't change it for the world. It's a big change because you know what to expect, you know what's going on, and nothing takes you by surprise.
"I have a lot of great coaches, and all the coaches here really help out. It's really fun to be out there and do whatever I can for the team."
The two kickers compete daily for the starting job, but they are friends and help each other.
"Matt and I provide great competition for each other, and whoever is doing whatever kicking, we're going to make sure that we're all doing good and we're doing the best for the team."
The 6'-0", 180 pounder has improved his strength tremendously in one year on campus thanks to the Strength & Conditioning staff.
"Coach Lou (Hernandez), Coach Zack (Womack) and all the coaches down there have made a big difference. I've gained a lot of weight and a lot of muscle. It's really helped me kick the ball a lot farther and higher.
"Coach Lou and Coach Zack have a lot of kicking-specific exercises. We do a lot of rubber band stuff and a lot of medicine ball stuff. It just works our abs and our hips to get that kicking motion real strong."
The kickers are part of the team, but they practice separately except during special team work.
"We practice on both the practice field and inside Memorial Stadium. When the team does individuals outside, we go into the stadium. Other than that, we're out on the practice field."
Practicing inside Memorial Stadium is important as wind conditions are often difficult and unpredictable.
"The wind is a big factor. It always seems to be going one way every game, but sometimes it switches. It's always swirling. There's always some type of wind you have to deal with."
Film study is also important.
"We focus on ourselves individually. We watch film on our own kicking. (On kickoffs) we make sure we put the ball where we need to put the ball to give our team the best chance to make a play."
Dimke also got a chance to try an onside kick against Northwestern. Eller has a pop-up technique he can repeat consistently. Dimke has developed a good one also.
"We probably do onside kicks once a week. Matt does a great onside kick. Whoever is doing it is the best for the team."
Kicking is an individual skill. But when a kicker like Dimke is team-first, he is never far removed from his teammates. And now he may get a chance to help his team win a game with a last second field goal.