The last two seasons haven’t been much fun in Champaign-Urbana. After a 2014 season that saw the Fighting Illini go 6-6 and earn a bowl bid, Illinois has gone 8-16 over the last two years, bottoming out at 3-9 this year. Coach Lovie Smith’s team seems to have a big problem along the offensive line (or perhaps you’d call it a “small” problem) as they look ahead to next season, but despite that challenge, there is one reason to be optimistic about the 2017 campaign, the return of wide receiver Mike Dudek.
Dudek took Illinois and the Big Ten by storm two years ago when he broke school freshman receiving records with 76 receptions for 1,038 yards. Additionally, his 50 receptions for 716 yards and three touchdowns led all Big Ten receivers in conference play. To understand how important Dudek was to the Illini’s success that year, you need look no future than their final two regular season games. They needed to win both to get to six wins and become bowl eligible and they did. In the wins, Dudek caught 18 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown. Even in losing the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dudek had 7 catches for 73 yards.
The future certainly looked bright for Dudek and Illinois, but then the knee injuries hit. During spring practices in 2015, Dudek tore the ACL in his right knee. After working hard to get back in time for the 2016 campaign, he suffered the exact same injury in spring practices earlier this year. At first, the hit to the Illini passing game wasn’t as bad, with Geronimo Allison catching 65 passes for 882 yards and three touchdowns in 2015, but the impact of Dudek’s absence for a second straight season was really felt this year as the team’s leading receiver, Malik Turner, only caught 48 passes for 712 yards. Quarterback play suffered as well. As a team, the Illini completed just over 50 percent of their passes, with an average of just under six yards per completion.
As the team struggled, Dudek contemplated returning during the season before deciding to shut it down for good in October. Now, with nine months to go before their season opener against Ball State, Dudek says he’s ready to return to the field. While he says he is 100 percent healthy, he admits that he will have to shake off some rust and get through the mental and physical hurdle of spring practices, but he and the team are excited about what he can bring to the offense.
#illini Lovie: I haven't played a game with mike Dudek. Next time we'll play he'll be with us. Have a plan in mind for him.— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) December 9, 2016
For Dudek’s part, despite the optimism surrounding his return, he says the locker room will still be led by Turner, who will be a senior when the season begins. Dudek says the key to a successful season won’t hinge solely on his return. The team must find a way to stay mentally tough even if they find themselves trailing early in games. Watching from the sidelines this year, Dudek says the team would shut it down and not compete as hard when they fell behind by larger margins.
Despite the issues they need to overcome, the return of Dudek will help and the former Freshman All-American has expressed great confidence in Lovie Smith and his staff to get the job done and help Illinois return to a bowl game next year.