Some of the catches Ricky Smalling made in 2017 were quite insane. Seeing Mike Dudek catch a touchdown against Ball State in his first game in over two years was my highlight of the season. Put those two together, and you’ve got a ton of storylines, potential and reasons to be hyped this year.
Let’s touch on Smalling first.
He did his stuff in bursts. Some games (twice) he was arguably the Illini’s best player, bringing in five-plus balls. Other games he was invisible, like several times in Big Ten play. Nonetheless, he was a freshman, and he managed to make big plays (16.5 yards per reception) with inconsistent — and sometimes awful — quarterbacking.
Throw in better QBs, more weapons on offense (like a running game) and defenses suddenly have more to worry about. That bodes well for Smalling, who will certainly be used on the outside from Week 1 this year in Rod Smith’s offense.
Now let’s move over to the veteran.
Disclaimer: Aside from wrestler Isaiah Martinez, Mike Dudek’s body is the most impressive athletic body I’ve seen at the University of Illinois. He might actually have been a Greek god in a past life — or at least one of those stone sculptures.
I don’t know what Dudek will do in his final year. I assume he’ll play a pretty large role in the offense, but there’s also some younger names in the wideout group, including Carlos Sandy and Justice Williams. Those guys likely won't be taking balls away from Dudek, but they’ll get their fair share of throws, too.
Why am I hyped for Dudek? Because he’s been through a lot, and he stayed through a lot. I respect the hell out of guys like fullback Austin Roberts, offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, kicker Chase McLaughlin, former quarterback Chayce Crouch and Dudek. I can imagine how easy it would have been to just pick up and leave Champaign during the turmoil, turnover and losses. But those guys stayed (given Crouch had to retire because I’m pretty sure we were all concerned for his health), and now hopefully they’ll get to see some of it pay off. That’d be special, at least getting to set everything in motion for what would presumably be a stretch of winning for Illini Football.
So, the offense has more weapons this year, and it returns two of last year’s best in Dudek and Smalling. Smalling has the potential to be an All-Big Ten caliber player, while Dudek has the potential to be an all-time great Illini — not in terms of numbers, but in terms of sticking around with a great attitude.
For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby.