For a guy ranked second in the nation, Illinois senior punter Anthony Santella remains virtually anonymous on campus. Not even that brunette in class noticed him. "Not yet, but a couple others though,'' said Santella, drawing a laugh from junior placekicker Derek Dimke. Dimke is the guy who's only missed one kick in his career yet hasn't reached cult status, unless anyone can tell his kicking leg is actually bigger than his left, because of the weight training.
For a guy ranked second in the nation, Illinois senior punter Anthony Santella remains virtually anonymous on campus. Not even that brunette in class noticed him.
"Not yet, but a couple others though,'' said Santella, drawing a laugh from junior placekicker Derek Dimke.
Dimke is the guy who's only missed one kick in his career yet hasn't reached cult status, unless anyone can tell his kicking leg is actually bigger than his left, because of the weight training.
"I can feel it when I sit down or I'm walking, but you can't see it,'' he said.
What's easy to see is Illinois' success in special teams. Dimke and Santella are money, two of the best in the nation. When Illinois plays at No. 13 Michigan State on Saturday, a phase of the game that used to be a disaster waiting to happen transitioned into a strength.
"We're kicking the ball pretty well, covering pretty well and protecting pretty well,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "That could be the difference in the game.''
When it comes to who's having a better year between Dimke and Santella, it's a pick 'em.
Santella, from Wauconda, leads the Big Ten and ranks second in the nation with an average of 47.9 yards per punt with nine 50 yards or longer and six inside the 20. He averaged 50.8 yards against Southern Illinois and logged a career-long 67-yarder vs. Northern Illinois.
The Illini also rank fifth nationally in net punting, After cover man Ashante Williams bobbled a punt last week that look like a sure thing to down at the 1, it bounced into the end zone for a touchback, costing the Illini 20 yards in net.
"He told me he'd buy me dinner,'' said Santella, who noticed players "jacked'' to work on punt coverage this fall. Santella began his career at Utah but didn't play as a freshman, when placekicker Louie Sakoda also handled the punting.
"I wasn't ready to play as a freshman,'' Santella said. "He ended up doing an amazing job. It was time to go find my own place.''
Santella also considered Michigan State, but the Spartans went with Aaron Bates, a senior who ranks second in the Big Ten.
Dimke, the Rockford Boylan grad who took over the job midway through last season, is 10 for 11 on field goals and made all 12 extra-point kicks this season. For his career, he is 15 for 16 on field goals and perfect on all 24 extra points. He made all four field goals last weekend at Penn State, highlighted by a 50-yarder, to earn the Big Ten special teams player of the week, and he ranks second nationally with two field goals per game.
Dimke made an early impression with Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase when coaches paired them together as workout partners shortly after Scheelhaase arrived on campus.
"That's the crazy thing,'' Scheelhaase said. "He never pulls the kicker card and gets out of the workouts. He's one of the hardest workers on the team. That why you like to see a guy like him succeed.''
And there's another benefit for Scheelhaase. Illinois is one of three teams nationally to score on every trip into the red zone. The Illini are 16 for 16, including seven field goals.
Dimke and Santella each has a trusted guru. Mike McCabe, an All-America punter at Illinois State in the 1980s, works with Santella and other top punters, such as Bates. Santella e-mails McCabe video. Dimke talks to former Ohio State all-Big Ten kicker Tim Williams two or three times a week. McCabe and Williams feel their protégés will someday use their feet to make money on Sundays.
Santella is one of the top three prospects at punter, McCabe said, and could go in the later rounds.
"Without question, Derek has the potential and ability to play in the NFL,'' Williams said.
The first priority is Michigan State. The Spartans not only have Bates, but a punt return team that ranks first in the Big Ten and eighth in the country. Spartans junior Keshawn Martin averages 17.6 yards per return, including a 74-yarder for a touchdown against Wisconsin.
"That's one area where they're better than us,'' Zook said. "Every time he gets the ball, you hold your breath.''
That used to happen with the Illini before Santella and Dimke took charge.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois (3-2) vs. Michigan State (6-0)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Spartan Stadium (75,005), East Lansing, Mich.
Series record: Michigan State leads 24-17-2
Big Ten records: Illinois 1-1, Michigan State 2-0
Last meeting: Michigan State 24-14 (2009)
Rankings: Michigan State is No. 13
Coaches: Ron Zook, 24-41 in sixth year at Illinois, 47-55 in ninth year overall; Mark Dantonio, 28-17 in fourth year at Michigan State, 46-34 in seventh year overall.
NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 19th, 217.6; passing 114th, 135.4; scoring 81st, 24.4; total 78th, 353.0. Illinois defense -- rushing 32nd, 117.0; passing 37th, 187.8; scoring 21st, 17.0; total 20th, 304.8. Michigan State offense -- rushing 14th, 225.0; passing 38th, 248.1; scoring 22nd, 35.8; total 14th, 473.1. Michigan State defense -- rushing 25th, 111.3; passing 77th, 225.4; scoring 26th, 18.3; total 42nd, 336.7.
Notable: Illinois fullback Zach Becker made the trip after missing the first five games with a stress fracture in his foot. Receiver Eddie McGee is close to 100 percent after spraining his ankle in the season's second game. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne (broken foot) is expected to increase his workload after playing 12 snaps vs. Penn State. … Illinois won the last meeting between the two teams in Spartan Stadium, a victory in 2006 that was coach Ron Zook's first in the Big Ten, but Michigan State has won 10 of the last 11 meetings. … After missing two games following a mild heart attack, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio coached from the press box last week and is expected to be there against Illinois. … Michigan State suspended cornerback Chris L. Rucker, who was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Freshman Darqueze Dennard will take his place.
Quotable: "We're the underdogs. They're the team being hunted. It's another great environment. The fans are right on top of you. There's not enough room on the sidelines. The locker room is awful. -- Illinois coach Ron Zook.
Prediction: Michigan State 27, Illinois 20