Illinois' Dimke finding spot among elite

Derek Dimke said he learned the visual aspect of kicking from the Ravens' Billy Cundiff. Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMI

Illinois senior kicker Derek Dimke has learned to live with discomfort like most football players.

While Dimke doesn't put his overall body through the same abuse as say a running back or a linebacker, none of his teammates likely feel the same concentrated pain Dimke does on a daily basis. For most of Dimke's week, he walks around in pain.

From Sunday to Thursday of each week, Dimke is relentless on his right leg. He's constantly in the weight room making sure to maintain his leg's strength throughout the season and looking to add any muscle he can. He then puts his leg through a variety of strenuous exercises to improve its flexibility.

At the end of the day, a jaunt to class can an even become a small chore for Dimke.

"There's a lot of days throughout the week that it doesn't feel good," Dimke said. "I just push through."

The payoff for Dimke's five days of pain has been perfection on Saturdays this season. Following a breakout junior year, Dimke has elevated himself to be one of college football's elite kickers. Dimke has connected on 7-of-7 field goals and 18-of-18 extra points this year while helping Illinois get off to a 5-0 start.

Illinois coach Ron Zook said in the spring he thought Dimke had a chance to be the best kicker in the country. Dimke isn't far off.

"I don't think there's anyone better in the Big Ten," said former Ohio State kicker Tim Williams, who runs UpandThrough.com and trains Dimke and other top-tier kickers. "I think Derek may be in the top two or three in the country."

ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper listed Dimke as the third best senior kicker in the preseason, and ESPN Scouts Inc. currently ranks Dimke fourth best in the country.

Dimke has proven himself this season as someone who can consistently make the shortest and longest of kicks and do so in the clutch.

With Illinois' last three games decided by three points each, all of Dimke's kicks have been much needed. In the Illini's 17-14 win over Arizona State, he made a 20-yard field goal. The following week in their 23-20 win over Western Michigan, he connected on field goals of 21, 35 and 39 yards, earning him the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week. Last week in their 38-35 win over Northwestern, he nailed a 49-yarder to close out the first half.

Prior to his field goal last week, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald attempted to ice him by calling a timeout immediately after an Illinois timeout with four seconds remaining in the half. Fitzgerald pulled the same trick in last year's game against Illinois. In both cases, Dimke placed the ball through the uprights.

"I really just stay relaxed and kind of focus on what I'm doing and my job and my teammates' jobs," Dimke said. "You can't put too much pressure on yourself."

Dimke's mental toughness has developed through his training with Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff.

"I learned most of it is visual through Billy, making sure you stay relaxed in all situations," Dimke said. "Don't worry about the things you can't worry about. You have to trust yourself and your ability. It sounds very simple, but when you're on the field trying to apply it, it's a lot more difficult."

Dimke turns to Cundiff to strengthen his mind, and he goes to Williams to improve his physical ability.

"Tim is a coach who really, really works on my form, how I'm hitting the ball, my approach to the ball and that sort of thing," Dimke said.

Williams breaks down a kicker's technique piece by piece. There isn't a kicker he can't find some fault in.

When Dimke began working with Williams as a Boylan High School senior, his form needed work, especially since he took a jab step in his approach. Today, Williams' criticisms are few and far between, which is almost as difficult for Dimke to hear.

"If I look at him, and I say everything looks good, he has a hard time with that because he's so used to me being critical," Williams said.

Williams credited Dimke's flawlessness this season to his work ethic.

"I've worked with several elite Division I kickers, and the one thing that separates Derek from those guys is how driven he is to make sure he works hard enough in the weight room, on his flexibility and his leg speed to get everything from his body," Williams said. "If you look at him, he looks like he can play in the secondary."

The goal is to play in the NFL, and Williams believes Dimke will have that opportunity. For now, Dimke isn't thinking about it. The NFL is like an opposing student section to him this season. It's another distraction he has to tune out.

"I'm not worried about that," Dimke said. "I'm with my Illinois family right now. Being completely, completely honest with you, you got to push that out of your head. I got to give my family here the best opportunity to win."

So far, so good.