Illinois built some momentum last year by getting to six victories and a bowl game for the first time under Tim Beckman. And though the program has had a hard time getting fans excited of late, anyone who likes football had to look forward to a full fall of Wes Lunt throwing passes to Mikey Dudek.
Unfortunately, that won't happen for at least the first month of the 2015 season and quite likely longer. The Illini announced on Wednesday afternoon that Dudek had torn his ACL during a noncontact drill in practice.
Dudek had shattered all reasonable expectations during his extraordinary freshman campaign, when he caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards. Only one returning Big Ten receiver, Rutgers' Leonte Carroo, managed a 1,000-yard season in 2014. And Dudek did it despite facing a learning curve early in the season, one he mastered thanks to the remarkable athleticism that allowed him to make several acrobatic catches.
Beckman said in an official release that team doctors believe Dudek could return as soon as October. He's a tireless worker with a go-go-go motor, so it would not be surprising at all to see Dudek attack his rehab and pester coaches to let him back on the field. Other players have suffered torn ACLs in the spring and managed to play again in the fall. Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan comes to mind, as he suffered the same injury on March 20, 2013 and appeared in a game for the Wolverines on Oct. 12 that fall.
But Ryan was never really the same in that 2013 season and admitted as much the following year before he showed his normal explosiveness in 2014. Many players take a year and a half before they're fully physically and -- perhaps even more importantly -- mentally over the injury. A position such as wide receiver, which involves so much running and cutting, further complicates matters. And the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Dudek relies on his quickness and sharp routes more than pure physical attributes. Illinois must be careful not to rush Dudek back and risk damaging his promising career; to his credit, Beckman said as much in the team announcement.
Illinois obviously will need other receivers to step up for however long Dudek is out. Geronimo Allison showed flashes of his enormous natural ability last season and will have to become more consistent as perhaps the team's new No. 1 target. Malik Turner will have to live up to his potential. Junior-college transfer Tyrin Stone-Davis will have to be a major contributor.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has enough options to figure it out without Dudek. But it's pretty clear that the Illini -- and football fans -- have lost the chance to see a special player use his full powers this fall.