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.”
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.”
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.”