Big Ten

Return date unknown, Illini's Mike Dudek fighting through ACL recovery

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Return date unknown, Illini's Mike Dudek fighting through ACL recovery

CHAMPAIGN — Last season, Mike Dudek was one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten. This season, he will have to work extremely hard just to get on the field.

Last year as a true freshman Dudek, a Naperville native and Neuqua Valley product, put together one of the best receiver seasons in Illinois football history, becoming just the eighth Illini ever to rack up more than 1,000 receiving yards in a single campaign.

But heading into his sophomore season, he tore his ACL during spring practice. It’s an injury that will obviously cost him significant playing time. And despite an optimistic diagnosis when the injury happened — head coach Tim Beckman said Dudek could be back by October — Dudek is still fighting through the disappointment of being sidelined as his teammates prepare for 2015.

“Of course I was down about it for a couple of days, a couple weeks. And I’ll think about it once in a while and get sad about it,” Dudek said Sunday during Illinois football media day. “But I’ve been trying to stay positive, as positive as I can, through it. There’s nothing I can do. It’s not like I was playing pickup basketball. I was out here playing football. It’s what we signed up to do. I’ve just been trying to remain positive toward it, attack rehab every day at 100 percent.”

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The injury and its requisite recovery time were made all the more disappointing because of just how good Dudek was last season and just how important he was expected to be for this Illini team. He caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns, ranking third in the Big Ten in receiving yardage. During conference play, he was the league’s top receiver in both receptions and yardage.

With quarterback Wes Lunt still yet to have a full season under his belt, Dudek would’ve been invaluable. Instead, he’ll sit out. And no one seems to know for how long.

“I’m trying to get back as soon as I can,” Dudek said. “If I get back for this season, good job, but if I don’t, I’m not going to be mad about it because it is an injury where you want to make sure you’re 100 percent because it could affect you in the long run.

“They say it’s like normally six to nine months, but it’s going quicker than that, hopefully. It’s going really well. I like to come in every day and have some new stuff I can do, just trying to get back as fast as I can, help the team.”

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While Dudek sits — whether for the season’s first month or the entirety of it — Illinois’ other receivers will have to step up. Geronimo Allison is the top candidate to receive the bulk of Lunt’s targets, and Beckman and the coaching staff couldn’t stop raving about true freshmen Sam Mays and Desmond Cain on Sunday, implying those two are in line to play a big role in their first season on campus.

Obviously, it will require a team effort, one Allison said has been orchestrated by Lunt.

“When it happened, Wes just came up to me and said, ‘We’ve got to turn it into another gear. Just pick up a little slack from Dudek being injured.’ He just switched gears,” Allison said. “The young guys, Sam Mays, Desmond Cain, freshmen guys came in and picked the offense up very fast. And the other guys that have been in the program a while now know the offense. Somebody has to step up and just play a role.”

“You’ve got to find somebody,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “That inside receiver, he’s really key. That’s where Mikey was so good. So we’ve got to find that guy, he’s got to be a twitch guy. I think Des has shown some possibilities. If Sam’s in there, it’s a little bit different in terms of routes, what routes we’d run utilizing his size. We’ve got to figure that out probably in the next five, six days. But we’re going to give a couple guys a chance at it and figure out where they can go.”

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While the team tries to find a stopgap measure that will help ease Dudek’s absence on the field, Dudek himself will have to fight off the disappointment of not being out there. He said this is the first time he’s missed a practice or game since he broke his collarbone in second grade. So you’ll have to excuse him if the experience isn’t exactly familiar.

“It’s tough. I was talking to (wide receivers) coach (Mike) Bellamy the other day about that. ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this.’ You just want to get out there and play, that’s just the competitiveness in you,” Dudek said. “So it’s been tough, but I’ve got a good support system here. I’ll get through it.”

Dudek is working diligently to recover, and he said sometimes he pushes a little too hard and has to remind himself to slow down. But while all that goes on behind the scenes, the fans and observers outside the program have just one question: Will Dudek be back this season?

“That’s a goal, of course, to come back and play. It’s just the competitiveness in me. I want to come play, I want to come help my team win,” Dudek said. “But you’ve got to realize you need your knee back to 100 percent. You can’t be out there in the Big Ten even at 99 percent. So I’m not trying to risk anything. I’m just going to listen to my doctors, and they’ll put me in the right direction.”

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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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.