Next of Kindred: Ex-Pioneer is rested, but still ready, at NIU

Next of Kindred: Ex-Pioneer is rested, but still ready, at NIU

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The last we saw of Andy Dittbenner, he was catching passes, intercepting others, making tackles, kicking field goals, booting extra points, booming punts and returning kicks.

If the football was in play, Dittbenner was on the field, leading University High School.

Your legs grew weary and your side ached watching him. He was the ultimate man in motion, earning first-team all-Corn Belt Conference honors at receiver, punter and kicker, and second-team at defensive back.

The weather never bothered him back then. He was too busy to notice.

Staying loose?

Not a problem. Tough to tighten up when you never stop moving.

Dittbenner remembers those days well, and why not? They're only a year in his past.

"I definitely miss playing all the time," he said. "It's a lot harder to stay in shape. It's also harder to stay warm during games, especially now because some of them have been in the teens (with wind chill)."

Don't be misled.

Dittbenner isn't asking for your pity. Temperatures aside, he's hardly out in the cold when it comes to football.

The Northern Illinois freshman is simply in a vastly different role from the one which made him an Illinois Football Coaches Association All-Stater.

The down time can be maddening for a guy accustomed to having none. Yet, as the Huskies' No. 1 punter, Dittbenner is reveling in Northern Illinois' historic season.

The West Division champion Huskies (7-4, 6-2) have reached the Mid-American Conference championship game for the first time. They meet East Division winner Akron (6-5, 5-3) at 6:45 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.

"It's great being in your freshman season and being a part of something like this," Dittbenner said. "I feel fortunate."

Dittbenner will be punting indoors at Detroit's Ford Field - "where the Super Bowl is going to be played," he eagerly points out.

He will try to help Northern Illinois earn a return trip to Detroit for the Motor City Bowl Dec. 26 as the MAC champion.

Dittbenner got in this position by winning the punting job in August over a redshirt sophomore. He has averaged 37.8 yards for 49 punts, with 15 downed inside the 20-yard line. Perhaps most important, he has had none blocked.

"It's been kind of tough adjusting to the speed of everything," Dittbenner said. "In high school, you could watch the rush develop. Here, you have no time to do that. You just have to get the punt off.

"I haven't been as consistent as I would like. But I definitely think I'm getting better every game."

Calling himself "a two-and-a-half step punter" at U High, Dittbenner now takes two steps, a move aimed at improving his "get-off time."

He also seeks better hang time.

"There are so many things (to improve on)," he said. "I could make a long list."

No need.

For now, it should be enough that Dittbenner has the confidence of veteran NIU coach Joe Novak, and his teammates have accepted a freshman punter.

"The team has been great to me," he said. "I also have the best snapper in the MAC (Jason Labus). That makes my job a lot easier."

But not stress-free.

Dittbenner admits there is "some pressure you feel" as a freshman, knowing if you fail to do your job, "you can mess up the plans for the whole special teams."

On the positive side, he is contributing to a team which has NIU students and fans in a frenzy.

"Everybody is real excited," Dittbenner said. "You can definitely feel it.

"There has been a lot of support from the campus and the community. They are getting a lot of buses to take fans to the game."

The Huskies' No. 18 will be there, too … ready when needed.

That hasn't changed.

Randy Kindred is a Pantagraph columnist. To leave him a voice mail, call 820-3402, By e-mail:


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