The past fifteen years have been a bit of a renaissance period for Fighting Illini wide receivers. After great careers from David Williams (1983-85) and Mike Martin (1979-82), no Illinois receiver managed to pull in at least 950 yards in a season until 2001. The closest anyone got was Mike Bellamy in 1989 with 927 receiving yards. That's one hell of a dry spell.
But then Brandon Lloyd managed consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons in 2001 and 2002. Arrelious Benn had his breakout year in 2008. A.J. Jenkins exploded in 2011 and Steve Hull came out of nowhere for 993 yards last season. Five of the top ten career receiving leaders in school history played their entire careers within the last 15 seasons. Five of the top ten receiving yard seasons have happened in that same span. I bring this all up because true freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek is, as is his fashion, rapidly and politely forcing his way into this conversation.
And it's wonderful. Seriously, we've never had something like this happen. Arrelious Benn, five-star can't-miss prospect, had a good freshman year. He caught 54 passes for 676 yards and 2 TD. Those were the high-water marks set by a future NFL player that had his pick of schools and chose Illinois. We still have one game to go and Dudek has already blown right past them.
In 11 games so far, Mike has caught 62 passes for 902 yards and 5 TD. He's two receptions away from cracking the top ten in Illini receptions for a single season. He's 25 yards short of 10th in receiving yards for one year. If he manages to get 98 yards against Northwestern, Dudek will record only the 8th 1,000 yard receiving season in school history. Even if he only puts up what he's averaged over the 11 games, his end of season numbers would be 68 receptions (6th in school history), 984 yards (9th), and 6 TD (11th). All of that from a true freshman.
We're talking about a player who will begin his ascent through the top ten lists in every receiving category next year. If he doesn't even improve, if he just merely replicates this year over his next three seasons he would break every school record set by College Football Hall of Famer David Williams. Those are the numbers of a Freshman All-American Team member. Hell, he's 26th in the nation in receiving yards and 32nd in receptions! He's 2nd in the Big Ten in receptions and 3rd in receiving yards! This does not happen here!
I'm looking at his offers list coming out of high school and I'm somewhat baffled at how he fell through the cracks like he did. Only three schools offered him a scholarship: North Dakota (not FCS powerhouse North Dakota State), Illinois State, and us. A player that has managed to look like a hybrid of the Flash and Mr. Fantastic both at once only had one FBS team ask him to wear their colors.
After this Saturday's game, I met up with Brad, Bryce, and Bryce's dad in a tailgating lot west of the Red Grange statue. Bryce's dad had noticed that the Dudek family tailgate wasn't very far away, so we walked over to say hello and congratulate Mike on another job well done. Mike's father welcomed us without any hesitation, offering food and beer (none of the latter for Bryce, of course) to complete strangers he had just met. When asked about where Mike gets the speed, his dad simply laughed and shook his head, telling us he has no idea where that came from. He told us he once asked his son how he makes some of those catches to which Mike could only reply "I don't even know. I just put my hands out there and it kind of happens."
When you see Mike up close, you understand how he managed to slip through the cracks despite being from the 5th biggest city in the state. The 185 lbs listed weight may be accurate, but the 5'11" height is very generous. He's spent post-game tailgate sessions with his family unable to get out of the chair he sat down in. But he sits there smiling, taking pictures with strangers and signing anything they hand him. If you take him out of the Illini tracksuit, you see an athletic 5'8" 19-year-old who enjoys lifting weights. Concerns of how he would have held up over a full season are fair, even though he's managing to prove them wrong.
If Mike Dudek can stay healthy, the ceiling for his potential is so high that it's almost terrifying. I can't wait to watch the rest of his Illini career.