From the outside, it appeared the placekicking duties for No. 20 Illinois would eventually fall to Derek Dimke, the touted freshman from Rockford Boylan who set a state playoff record with a 54-yard field goal last year. But as the Illini prepare for No. 6 Missouri in the season opener at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN), coach Ron Zook isn't close to naming a kicker to fill the vacancy left by four-year starter Jason Reda.
From the outside, it appeared the placekicking duties for No. 20 Illinois would eventually fall to Derek Dimke, the touted freshman from Rockford Boylan who set a state playoff record with a 54-yard field goal last year.
But as the Illini prepare for No. 6 Missouri in the season opener at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN), coach Ron Zook isn't close to naming a kicker to fill the vacancy left by four-year starter Jason Reda. Dimke, sophomore Matt Brandabur and redshirt freshman Matt Eller are the leading contenders.
While the return game, coverage and punting duties are set, Zook hasn't been able to finalize plans for the critical chores at placekicker.
"The question still becomes who is the guy who is going to be the kicker,'' Zook said. "We have three guys who are all kicking well. There's an inconsistency problem, which you're going to have with a young guy.
"Matt Brandabur, Matt Eller and Derek Dimke have all show they can kick in the Big Ten Conference, and they can win for us. You'd like to have a guy this week. I'd still like to have it this week. If we don't, we don't, and we'll just keep going on.''
Zook wasn't sure how many kickers he would take to the opener, because the Illini are limited to 70 players away from home according to a Big Ten rule. He would likely take two kickers, and Dimke has shown an ability to handle kickoffs.
"For the first kick or two, they're going to be nervous,'' Zook said. "This is the only national TV game this weekend. I'm not trying to put pressure on them, but that's what a kicker does.''
In the second scrimmage earlier this month, Dimke made 27-and 34-yarders but had a 42-yarder blocked. Eller yanked a 43-yarder wide left, and Brandabur made 36- and 37-yarders. From the sidelines, it appeared Dimke had the strongest leg.
Illinois used two punters in the season opener last year before settling on walk-on Anthony Santella, the first-stringer after a career-high 44.7 yards per attempt in the Rose Bowl. Santella is still without a scholarship while Kyle Yelton, who lost the job to Santella, remained on scholarship.
INJURY REPORT: Senior center Ryan McDonald wasn't sure he would play after wearing an elastic sleeve on his knee to the weekly press conference Monday.
"I was hoping you wouldn't see it,'' McDonald said.
If McDonald couldn't play, senior Eric Block would likely shift from left guard to center, where he was a backup last season. Second-stringer Randall Hunt could fill an opening at guard.
Junior wide receiver Jeff Cumberland remained out after surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot, although his recovery is ahead of schedule, Zook said. Running back Troy Pollard returned to practice Monday following a high ankle sprain that kept him out two weeks during preseason camp.
ETC.: According to the depth chart, receiver Arrelious Benn and cornerback Dere Hicks will return punts. Sophomores Travon Bellamy and Bo Flowers are the starting safeties. . . Sophomores Brian Gamble and Mark Jackson are no longer on the team, Zook said. Gamble was the team's second-leading receiver back from last season. . . Freshman receiver Jack Ramsey won't play this week because of academic issues but could still rejoin the team. Cornerback Patrick Nixon must return home and improve his ACT score, Zook said. Freshman linebacker Evan Frierson has cleared the eligibility clearinghouse and practiced with the Illini Monday… About 3,000 tickets remain for the home opener against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 6 and 4,500 are unsold for the game against Louisiana-Lafayette the following weekend.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.