Between the two, they have only 26 games under their belt, but Dre Brown and Mike Dudek will be entering their fourth and fifth respective seasons with the Illini.
It’s been a battle for each guy, both missing the 2015 and 2016 seasons with ACL tears in separate knees, and both missing parts of last season sidelined with injuries.
“The real battle is the mental part,” said Dudek. “It’s tough to train your mind, you know? To be able to make a cut again without thinking of it, or something of that nature. The mental grind of it is something that both Dre and I had to work on for a long time, but I think we’re past it.”
Before Dudek suffered his ACL injuries, he graced fans with one of the best seasons in Illini history.
As a freshman, the Naperville native brought home numerous pieces of hardware, shattering school records and finishing atop the conference and country in many statistical categories along the way. He was voted Second Team All-Big Ten, First Team Freshman All-American by Scout.com, True Freshman All-American by ESPN and 247Sports, and Illinois’ Offensive Newcomer of the Year. He led the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards during conference play and finished tops among FBS Freshmen in receiving yards per game.
It was almost 1,000 days in between Dudek’s final game as a freshman and first game as a redshirt-junior with the Illini, but he was determined to get back on the field, in part to his new best friend and local celebrity, Colton Rahn.
“He’s a tremendous kid,” said Dudek of Rahn. “What he’s going through is extremely tough, and he always has a smile on his face. For me, what I went through is nothing compared to what he goes through on a daily basis. He motivates me every single day to come out here and just appreciate life, appreciate what I have, and just be grateful for everything.”
Rahn and Dudek became close this offseason when Colton’s dad, Jason, saw his own tweet of his son go viral. (Our own Stephen Cohn and Elias Schuster covered a moment the two shared earlier this winter here.)
Brown had his own unique return to the playing field this past fall.
The fellow Illinois native bolstered offers from Illinois, Indiana and NIU, among others, coming out of high school. He was a top player in the state and one of the best running backs in the country. Brown didn’t get to make his appearance for the Orange and Blue until his third season with team, though.
He made his debut on special teams against Iowa, put up career-high numbers at Ohio State, and finished the season with his first career start against Northwestern.
“That was the best feeling,” Brown said. “I showed myself what I can do. Ohio State, Northwestern, I had good games for not playing the last two seasons and having two torn ACLs. It was fun to be out there, just kind of playing football.”
Despite setbacks and less than ideal starts to their tenures, both are anxious for the start of the new season.
“I feel like we had a great spring,” Brown said. “I sat out because of my history with spring ball and didn’t want to risk injury again. I love the new offense, I’m just learning mentally right now. Our goal is to win the Big Ten Championship.
“For me personally (the goal), just doing as much as I can for the team in whatever role I can find to the best of my ability.”
Dudek is just as fond of the new system new Illinois Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith brings in.
“I like it. It’s a very fast paced offense,” he said. “A lot of guys can get the ball. He uses his weapons, and he uses what he has. This summer will be big for us, just continuing to learn the offense, continue to master it, and work on our conditioning because it’s a lot of running.”
Although their impacts might not show up among the career leaders of any categories here at Illinois, the duo is invaluable for their experience, leadership and compassion they’ve showed both on and off the field. Any success that the football team finds this fall can almost certainly be traced back to one of these two in some way or another.