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.”
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.
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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.
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“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.