Illinois sophomore placekicker Matt Eller has realized some of his best work comes far away from home and the beaches of Jacksonville, Fla. As a freshman last season, kickoff specialist Derek Dimke learned the hard way that there's only so much work he can do. Eller decided to work harder and stay out of trouble. Dimke attempted to take it easy on his leg. The combination has led to a two-kicker platoon system that Illinois will likely use for the long haul.
Illinois sophomore placekicker Matt Eller has realized some of his best work comes far away from home and the beaches of Jacksonville, Fla.
"Not everybody back home is making the best choices,'' he said. "When I get up here, I feel more productive.''
As a freshman last season, kickoff specialist Derek Dimke learned the hard way that there's only so much work he can do. Last preseason he kicked 50 balls a day while making the transition from a placekicking tee in high school to kicking field goals off grass in college. This year, he reduced the workload.
"Just like a (pitcher’s arm), your leg gets tired, and you can't hit the ball like you want,'' said Dimke, a Rockford Boylan High School graduate. "I wasn't hitting the ball as well as I needed last fall because of the transition. I kept trying to correct it and kicked too much.''
Eller decided to work harder and stay out of trouble. Dimke attempted to take it easy on his leg. The combination has led to a two-kicker platoon system that Illinois will likely use for the long haul.
For the Illini, two feet are better than one. When Illinois opens against Missouri on Sept. 5, Eller handles the field goals and extra points while Dimke concentrates on kickoffs. The workload keeps both happy – scholarships awarded to both of them in the preseason didn't hurt – and may have helped two rookies get through last season.
After struggling this spring, the kickers performed well in preseason camp. With junior punter Anthony Santella (who was also placed on scholarship) the Illini special teams squad hopes to be more special this fall.
"It has to help us win a couple games,'' coach Ron Zook said. "It can't lose a game for us.''
Last fall, Eller made 15 of 20 field-goal attempts, including 8 of 10 from 40 yards or more, and set the school record for points by a freshman at 84. When Dimke took over the kickoff chores in the final six games, Eller went 7-for-8.
Named the starter just days before the season opener a year ago, Eller beat Iowa with a 46-yarder with 24 seconds left and generally handled the pressure of taking over for Jason Reda, a four-year starter who set the career school record with 267 points.
"The thing that most surprised me is when you get on the field, it's the same as practice,'' Eller said. "You think you go out there, notice the people and start shaking. Once you get there and see the same holder and line in front of you, it's OK.
"I have a little more cockiness when people are watching. I have more focus.''
Dimke averaged 61.2 yards per kickoff. This year, he’s working on range and placement.
"The guy kicking it is just as important as the guys running down the field covering it,'' Zook said.
If he can't reach the end zone for a touchback, Dimke's responsibility is hitting the right spots: the areas of the field where a coverage call is designed or hitting a high kick that calls for less distance but more hang time.
"If the ball isn't where it needs to be, that's my fault,'' Dimke said. "That's when a lot of big returns happen. I've just tried to go out and stay relaxed. That's hard to do when you're a freshman.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.