There are plenty of “What if?” scenarios for Fighting Illini Football. Usually, they involve things that are somewhat under the control of an individual, team, or the University. “What if player A decided to stay? What if the AD hired coach B? What if coach C had hit on recruit D?”
As an Illini fan, I realize that these are the worst questions to ask. They’re even worse when you ask questions that are not really under anyone’s control. Some things happen because of bad luck or for no reason at all.
For example, what if Mike Dudek had remained healthy for what should’ve been his sophomore and junior years at the University of Illinois?
During his freshman campaign, Mike Dudek was a unanimous Freshman All-American selection. He finished the 2014 season with 76 receptions for 1,038 yards along with six touchdowns. Sadly, he missed both the entirety of the 2015 and 2016 season with ACL issues. This past season, Dudek played in just seven games due to injuries. His highest-yardage game was against South Florida on Sept. 19 where he had 6 catches for 65 yards. Due to lingering injuries, he did not compile any statistics in five of the final six games of the season.
What might have happened in those injured seasons?
So, the major point of looking at something like this is whether or not there is a reasonable assumption that Dudek’s presence would have had a serious effect on the football season. Let’s look at 2015. That year, Geronimo Allison was Illinois’ leading receiver with 65 catches for 882 yards. Allison certainly proved himself to be a capable receiver, and now we can all watch him in the green and gold on Sundays. In 2014 — his junior year — Allison had less production, with 598 yards through the air. That was to go along with Dudek’s 1,038. This is not to say that Dudek would’ve had 1,300 yards in 2015 if he was healthy, but remember: Wes Lunt played in 12 games in 2015. He played in 8 games both in 2014 and 2016. He was healthiest in 2015 when he could have had Allison, Dudek and Malik Turner at his disposal, and Lunt was easily the most skilled passer Illinois has had in years.
It’s impossible to say if Illinois could’ve done better than its 5-7 record in 2015 with Dudek, but let’s entertain the thought. One game I am almost certain Illinois could’ve won was the Iowa game on Oct. 10. They led kept it close late into the game but simply could not hold on, and lost 29-20 to the Hawkeyes. Josh Ferguson didn’t play in that game, either. Allison had an amazing game that day (eight catches, 148 yard, one TD), so just imagine putting a speedy slot receiver opposite him.
Illinois may have had a better chance to beat Wisconsin (24-13 loss on Oct. 24), Minnesota (32-23 loss on Nov. 21) and Northwestern (24-14 loss on Nov. 28) with Dudek on the field, too. Do the Illini pull out four games just because of one player? No. But I can make a strong argument for the Iowa game, and that means they finish at least 6-6 on the year.
In 2016 and 2017, I think Dudek has less of an effect. As mentioned, Lunt was not real healthy for his final season of eligibility, and that team had just hired a new head coach who was trying to establish a new culture. There was not an abundance of passing. Lunt averaged 60 yards less per game in 2016 than he did in 2015. Not to mention, when Lunt was injured, Chayce Crouch and Jeff George, Jr. were filling in. Neither averaged 100 yards per game through the air. 2017 was a similar situation, in that the passing game was weak mostly due personnel.
Could a healthy Dudek have had enough of an impact on whether or not Beckman or Cubit retained their jobs? Beckman would have been gone regardless. Remember, he was fired the week the 2015 season was beginning due to an investigation into the program after Dudek’s amazing freshman campaign. Cubit, on the other hand, got to five wins in 2015 and Dudek may have helped him get to 6 or 7. Still, I think Whitman knew Cubit was not a long term solution and would’ve axed him even if the Illini made a second straight bowl.
All in all, it’s hard to determine the type of impact one player could have had on a game as complex as football. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Dudek could have helped Illinois win at least one or two other games between the 2015 and 2016 season had he stayed totally healthy. If that were the case, we might be looking at a guy who could break the Illinois career receiving yards record. Dudek would’ve needed 2,354 yards between 2015, 2016 and 2017 to tie David Williams’ receiving yards record (785 yards per year). With his skillset, I think this is a reasonable expectation. Unfortunately, he will not make it there during his Illini career.
While we can only imagine what a healthy Dudek would’ve done for this team, we can wait and see what he will do in his final season with the Fighting Illini.