Derek Dimke arrived at the University of Illinois as a freshman kicker in 2008, and in the six years since has made 46 of the 53 field goals he has attempted in game conditions. That's an excellent 86.8% success rate, and it speaks to an athlete who can perform under pressure…and not just the pressure of a football game on the line. For a good portion of those six years, Dimke has known that the next kick could be the one that wins or loses him a job.
Dimke earned a letter as a freshman in 2008, though he only handled kickoffs that first year while redshirt freshman Matt Eller handled field goals and extra points. In 2009, Dimke split the placekicking duties with Eller and made all five his tries while his teammate was good on just four of 11. Not surprisingly, the job went fully to Dimke in 2010, though Eller was still around along with several other kicking candidates, and then again in 2011. At the end of his run with the Illini, Dimke had set a school record with an 84.8% field goal success rate, and another mark with 89 career extra point attempts without a miss. He also took home second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches as a junior and was on the Lou Groza Award watch list going into 2011.
As is the case with a great many successful college kickers, all of those great numbers won him just an undrafted spot with the Detroit Lions in 2012 and a shot in training camp. Dimke made both of the field goal attempts he was given last summer in the preseason but, unsurprisingly, that wasn't enough to unseat 21-year Lions veteran Jason Hanson. It was enough, however, to put him on the radar for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the new league year began, and Dimke signed with his second NFL team in April. At the time, the incumbent kicker was a player nearly entrenched as Hanson was in Detroit, as Connor Barth was going into the second year of a lucrative deal with the Buccaneers and was already the most successful kicker in franchise history.
Barth, however, suffered a torn Achilles tendon in a charity basketball game shortly before the start of training camp, which threw the door to one of the NFL's 32 placekicking jobs wide open. To many, it appeared as if the Buccaneers quickly slammed that door shut by signing established veteran kicker Lawrence Tynes on the eve of training camp. In fact, however, the signing merely created a very real competition between Dimke and Tynes, as Head Coach Greg Schiano emphasized on Saturday.
And, again, Dimke has been dealing with that kind of competition for a long time. He appears to have the sort of even-keeled demeanor any coach would want in a kicker and he's doing his best to keep the outside noise at bay.
"At Illinois, every year probably except for my senior year, there was competition," said Dimke. "There were guys that wanted my job and we had a lot of good kickers. It's part of the game.
"It's a competition every day. My approach was the same coming into camp whether Connor was here, whether Lawrence was here, whoever was here. I'm just really trying to focus on myself and doing whatever I can to help the team win."
The Bucs have actually lost their first two preseason games, but the placekicking aspect of their performance hasn't been a problem. Dimke still hasn't missed as a pro, albeit in strictly preseason action, as he is five for five so far as a Buccaneer. He has also performed well on the practice field, even when the coaching staff purposely throws whatever noise and distractions it can at him during his kicks, a common trick in the NFL. That, too, is something Dimke has been used to since his college days.
"Playing in the Big Ten, a lot of those stadiums you hear most everything anyway," he said. "My college coach, all the coaches there, did a nice job of making sure practice was quite intense for me, as well. That's how it goes. When [the Bucs' coaches do] that, going out on Sundays, or whatever day our game is, is a little easier."
None of which is to say that the Buccaneers weren't pleased to be able to add a kicker of Tynes' experience – he has a career mark of 81.5% on 233 NFL kicks and has been a playoff hero on several occasions – when their own veteran went down. Tynes may still fight off the competition from his younger teammate…once he gets back on the field. A toe injury has kept Tynes from practicing for much of training camp or playing in either of the first two playoff games. That has been a double-edged sword for Dimke – obviously, he is getting a bigger chance to prove what he can do, but he's also having to fight against leg fatigue.
"I'm kicking a little bit more than I used to but, again, that's part of it and I'm going to do whatever I can do to help the team, whether that's kicking every day or whatever," he said. "Whatever they need me to do, I'll do."
Right now, the Bucs just need Dimke to keep doing what he has been doing since camp started – making just about every kick and, day by day, making the coming roster decision more difficult.