Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Who will step up for Illini in Mike Dudek's absence?

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Big Ten preview: Who will step up for Illini in Mike Dudek's absence?

Though recent football seasons in Champaign have been short on bright sides, Mike Dudek was undoubtedly one for the Illini last year.

As a true freshman, Dudek emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top pass catchers, hauling in 76 passes for 1,038 yards, just the eighth Illini receiver ever to go for 1,000 receiving yards in a single season.

But as he prepared for a season that would have seen him enter as one of the Big Ten’s most hyped receivers and one of the Illini’s top players, he tore his ACL during spring practice.

Somewhat surprisingly, head coach Tim Beckman announced after the injury happened that Dudek could return by October, certainly nowhere near the usual timeline for such an injury. Dudek was less clear on his return date — and said it’s a possibility he won’t be back this season — at the team’s media day Sunday in Champaign. But if in fact Dudek does get back on the field by the time Big Ten play rolls around or shortly after it starts, that would be a huge boost for the Illini. In the meantime, though, how will they function without their No. 1 target?

“It’ll be a bit different, but we’ll adjust,” running back Josh Ferguson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing about football: You can always lose someone just like that. Just got to prepare the guys that are behind him. Maybe I’ll help out a little bit in the receiver corps. Just move on, and we’ll adjust until he comes back.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Does Wes Lunt still have something to prove for Illini?]

Quarterback Wes Lunt saw limited action last season, doing well during non-conference play against mostly mediocre competition before sitting out against Nebraska, getting injured against Purdue and appearing in just two additional Big Ten games. Getting to team up with an established receiver like Dudek would’ve been great for a quarterback still looking to acquire some more experience, particularly against conference foes.

Instead, Lunt will have to rely on a cavalcade of other pass catchers, some who have been around and some who haven’t.

Most notable in that group is Geronimo Allison, who Lunt established a pretty nice connection with at times early last season. Particularly in a loss to Washington, Lunt and Allison had it going. In that game, Allison caught six passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Though Lunt didn’t play, Allison had another big game against Nebraska, making five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. Though his yardage decreased in following weeks, he reached the end zone against Purdue and Wisconsin, as well, before falling off the map. In the Illini’s final five regular-season games he made just seven catches. This as Dudek emerged as the go-to receiver.

Getting Lunt and Allison back in sync could be the biggest key to getting the Illini offense humming early on this season. With no Dudek and a run game that’s been mighty inconsistent over the past two seasons, Allison could prove Lunt’s most effective option.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Illini's slow-but-steady progress continue?]

Thankfully, the two still have that same solid connection.

“It’s very strong. Being a senior, being more mature, he leaves a lot of stuff up to me, and I leave stuff up to him. And we just communicate with each other,” Allison said. “Sometimes he calls a specific play. Sometimes I say, ‘Wes, I see this. Let’s work this.’ It’s very ying and yang, no push and pull, and we work well with each other.”

After Dudek and Allison, the next two leading returning receivers are Malik Turner and Justin Hardee. Both have been battling injuries this offseason, though it was Hardee who topped one of the receiver spots — as did Allison — on the team’s post-spring depth chart. Hardee, though, didn’t have impressive numbers in 2014, catching just 19 passes for 240 yards.

Hardee remains sidelined, and while Dionte Taylor was the third receiver topping a spot on that depth chart, the talk of media day was a pair of true freshmen: Sam Mays and Desmond Cain. Both quick, coaches and teammates raved about the young guys and their ability to pick up the offense in a hurry. Dudek was a star as a true freshman last season, and it sounds as if the Illini might have a couple more impact first-year receivers on their hands.

[MORE BIG TEN: Comfort breeding confidence as Illini prep for 2015 season]

“It’s early, but they have definitely caught our eyes,” Beckman said. “With the depth that we have at wide receiver with Mikey and Justin out right now, I could see one of the wide receivers or two of them possibly playing this year.

“Their speed, the way that they’re catching the football. They’re playing a little bit older, not like an 18-year-old that just gets on your campus. I’m impressed with what they’re doing. … I think they’re ahead of the normal freshman that comes in.”

With Dudek out of commission, the Illinois receiving corps is a bit of a crowded cast of could-bes. Allison seems the most likely to get in a rhythm with Lunt, but any of these guys could emerge, it’s just a matter of who will.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.