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Can Justin Hardee help stabilize the uncertain wide receiver situation at Illinois?

Mikey Dudek is sidelined again this season; is Illinois better suited to handle his absence this time around?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Will Illinois' wide receivers let Mikey Dudek's injury be the defining moment of their season? Even with just a freshman campaign, in which opposing defenses were surprised by and had little film on the breakout receiver, on the books, Dudek had assumed a vital role in Illinois' offense, putting the face of a leader on a receiving corps that had drifted a few years without a cornerstone player. His loss will be hard to contextualize, given the transformation of the offensive personnel and philosophy since Dudek last suited up. Illinois fans, in other words, won't know what they're missing. That alleviates a bit of pressure on the current corps, but it won't give any solace should the group struggle.

So who's left?

Lots of guys! Here are their names:

Man Berg
Desmond Cain
Trenard Davis
Zach Grant
Justin Hardee
Samuel Harlib
Sam Mays

M.J. McGriff
Dionte Taylor
Dominic Thieman
Malik Turner

Returning Starters: Justin Hardee (SR), Malik Turner (JR), Desmond Cain (SO)

Key Losses: Mikey Dudek (injury), Geronimo Allison (graduation), Marchie Murdock (transfer)

Other Returners: Zach Grant (SR), Sam Mays (SO), Dionte Taylor (SR), Samuel Harlib (JR), Man Berg (JR)

Newcomers: Dominic Thieman, M.J. McGriff, Trenard Davis

Softening the blow of the Dudek injury is the return of Hardee, who missed last year with a broken foot. Combined with the experience Turner and Cain gained last year, the Illini will trot out a group of receivers more comfortable in their roles in the offense. The offense itself could induce growing pains, with new coordinator Garrick McGee implementing his system, but receivers often don't flinch at new playbooks because their job in general stays the same (run, cut, catch, run).

The Illini lose (aside from two great names) a big weapon in Allison and needed depth in Murdock, but assuming Hardee is full strength and Turner and Cain improve, the receiving corps can still come out of the offseason ahead of where they were last year. Taylor and Mays should both improve and could solidify the position if they remain focused and healthy. Among the three freshman commits, Davis is the most familiar name, as he was committed to play for Illinois last season before being dismissed from the university for academic reasons. He will reattempt matriculation and hope to thrive as a wide receiver (despite his oft-listed position, per recruiting websites, of "Athlete," which, if that doesn't strike fear into your heart, you're more brave than I). He was offered by Pitt, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, among others in 2015.

Overall impressions

The best available advice is to forget Mikey Dudek for now. Assuming he redshirts and is back full strength next season, there will be ample time to think about how he affects the offense. McGee wouldn't say for sure that Dudek's gone all year, but seeing as we all know how ACL injuries work by this point, it's best to avoid getting our hopes up. Furthermore, there's a reasonable argument to be made for optimism at the receiver position.

Illinois will not be touting, among Big Ten schools at least, a "strong" receiving corps; but, if there's buy-in to the new coaching staff and system — and there should be — Illinois should have a "solid" receiving corps. That's enough, if Wes Lunt stays healthy and sharp, to present a formidable passing attack. Hardee is the unquestioned leader of the group, in status if not in skill, and there's a decent amount of competition among the other receivers to where it wouldn't be surprising if two or three emerged with breakout years. Instead of spending the season moping about how much better Illinois could be if only it had the cooperation of Dudek's knee, focus on the vast potential for improvement from slots 2 through 6, and remember we're in Year One of the Lovie Smith era.