Still hope for Dudek to play this year

Still hope for Dudek to play this year

CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith didn't definitively rule Mikey Dudek out for the rest of the season, at least leaving the idea the redshirt junior wide receiver could return with two games still on the schedule for Illinois.

So, in theory, Dudek could bounce back from the as-yet-undisclosed internal injury he suffered Oct. 28 against Wisconsin. But the look on Smith's face, his tone of voice and what he actually did say Monday afternoon spoke volumes.

"It's not looking really good down to two games," Smith said. "We'll see. Probably not, but we'll see."

Dudek entered this season on a high note, primed to be back on the field after missing the 2015 season with a torn left ACL and tore it again to miss the 2016 season. Injuries this year have robbed him of three games — the last two plus Oct. 21 at Minnesota — limiting him to 24 receptions for 262 yards and one touchdown in seven games.

It's a long way from the 5-foot-11 wide receiver out of Neuqua Valley setting Illinois' single-season freshman records for receptions (76) and receiving yards (1,038) and tying the freshman record for receiving touchdowns (six) in 2014.

"I know what type of player he is," Illinois redshirt sophomore wide receiver Trenard Davis said. "I'm pretty sure everybody knows what type of player he is. I know it hurts him more, but it hurts me to see that happen to him. I'm just praying for him and hoping he can come back from this one."

Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee envisions a strong eventual return for Dudek.

"I think doctors would say your first year off of back-to-back injuries like that, that first year your body's going to go through some things," McGee said. "It's your first time back out there in full action. Mikey made it a long time, and his body started to wear down. I think his knees are healthy, so he's going to be able to go into the offseason, and I think next year have a huge season."

McGee has had to tinker with the Illinois offense with injuries to wide receivers like Dudek, Malik Turner and Carmoni Green. It's meant more reliance on true freshmen Ricky Smalling and Louis Dorsey, a position shift for Caleb Reams from tight end to receiver and more opportunities for Davis, who practiced with the Illini quarterbacks last season and this past spring.

"That's what's kind of neat to see — players taking advantage of opportunities," Smith said. "Caleb Reams hasn't gotten a chance to play an awful lot. We kind of made the switch to get him a little bit more wide receiver reps, and he's embraced it.

"That's been a constant for us. With injuries we've had to shuffle guys, and we'll shuffle some more this week. Your role changes weekly, and you have to know that as you come in."

Smith didn't have any updates for the rest of Illinois' litany of injured players. That includes true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, who missed Saturday's game against Indiana after getting his first start at Purdue on Nov. 4.

"Last game he didn't play," Smith said, "so until I'm told otherwise he's out."