The worst fears of Illini fans were confirmed on Friday evening at Memorial Stadium. Head Coach Lovie Smith announced, much to the dismay and chagrin of Illini fans that Mike Dudek has re-torn his ACL.
After missing 2015 with the same injury, Dudek was expected to be one of the best offensive weapons on this Illinois team, as well as the Big Ten.
The injury likely moves Desmond Cain or Sam Mays to a starting wide receiver role, with the possibiltiy to see Dionte Taylor in the mix as well. Offensively, Justin Hardee and Malik Turner will move up to the wide receiver No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectfully.
The hope now falls to a receiving corps that was ranked 47th in the nation last year in passing yards per game. If the receivers are unable to improve that ranking, or improve their plethora of dropped passes last season, the loss of Dudek could sting this offense and new receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker.
Offensively, and overall, the Illinois Fighting Illini will see implications from this injury. Without one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, you can likely expect defenses to stack an extra guy or two in the box, trying to force the pass. Vaughn may see a drop in his numbers from what may or may not have been projected for the versatile running back.
Wes Lunt is still, in my opinion, one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten, if not the best. That being said, many of the receivers had severe issues with drops in 2015, and without the glue like hands of Mike Dudek, the issue could possibly continue (although I expect Hayes-Stoker to be a great asset to the receivers).
Overall, the loss of Dudek is just terrible for Illinois. Understanding that, it is early enough in the spring (practice #4) for the squad to make adjustments. I expect the entire offense to work together, running game and passing game, to alleviate the loss of Dudek with this stellar coaching staff in place.
You have to feel bad for Mike Dudek in this situation. Nobody, fans included, wanted to be back at Memorial Stadium more than him. He was yearning to be on that field every single Saturday. He will come back from this.
I would have been much more worried about this situation if our coaching staff was the same as it was in February. However, Lovie Smith and his assistants (Thanks Josh Whitman!) can help deal with this loss. Coaches McGee, Butkus, Hayes-Stoker, and Ward will all work together and minimize the impact of the injury. Expect Hardee and Turner to be looked at as the leaders of the receiving corps, expect them to be loud, vocal leaders.
If everything goes according to plan, Dudek will to be back in 2017. When talking to TCR's Steve Braun last night, he said something that kind of stuck with me. "We were just about five months from seeing Dudek on the field again...and now it's 17...". Everyone was so excited to see Mike back in action in, but we'll just have to wait until 2017 to see a continuation of Dudek's acrobatic, glue hand catches.
From all of us here at The Champaign Room, get well soon, Dude-K!