What a cruel trick the football gods played on seldom rewarded Illinois football fans. Along came this lightly recruited adonis from the Chicago suburbs with spring-loaded legs and quickness to burn - and then, poof. After a 1,000 yard freshman All-American season his magic was taken from us in back-to-back springs.
Mike Dudek, you deserve a healthy season as much as Illini fans deserve to watch you again on Saturdays.
During Dudek’s breakout freshman year he caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. What heights did those numbers project to in Illini fans dreams? 1,300 and 8 as a sophomore? 1,400 and 11 as a junior? All taken by two cases of bad footing in spring practice. For a player that relied so much on his pistons to fire past other elite athletes, one had to worry if he would ever get back to form.
But now? Dudek is ready to rise like a phoenix, and Illini fans are hanging on every practice that inches him closer to his first football game in three years. For starters, Dudek looks like he’s spent every waking hour of the last couple seasons shoulder pressing. Hardcore rehabilitation has left No. 18 ready to challenge Rich Froning Jr. for next years World’s Fittest Man title. On the practice field, tongue-in-cheek reviews are hesitantly glowing. Similar to the twice bitten Illini fan base, players and coaches alike can’t describe what they’re seeing from Dudek without crossing their fingers and toes that he has a little luck. Football gods know he (and we) deserve it.
Lovie Smith and the rest of the coaching/training staff is being cautious with their returning star receiver. Giving him scheduled rest at practice and limiting contact until it is absolutely necessary against Ball State. Dudek received an ovation at practice when he caught his first pass in 7-on-7 drills, just imagine the home crowd’s jubilation on September 2nd.
It is a forgone conclusion that a healthy Dudek is entirely uncheckable - with his unique blend of refined routes and rare explosion, it is just a matter of the ball being thrown on time, and Illinois is moving the chains. Oh, and don’t rely on preconceived notions of what a 5-11 white receiver should excel at. He’s a lot more Julian Edelman than Wes Welker - Dudek can hurt you from all over the field, including his 100 percent completion percentage throwing the football.
So football gods, what’s it going to take? Can you finally see that Michigan and Ohio State have enough, and that maybe it’s time to consistently shine a little light on Champaign, Illinois? If that’s too much to ask, can you please just focus a little magic on Mike Dudek? We deserve to see his comeback. Moreso, HE deserves to have it.