Asmussen | Losing Dudek a punch in the gut

Asmussen | Losing Dudek a punch in the gut

The moment Lovie Smith said the words "Mike Dudek" during Monday's press conference, you knew what was coming next would be bad news.

And it was. The Illinois receiver, who missed the 2015 and '16 seasons with torn ACLs, is going to miss the rest of '18, too.

Punch ... in ... the ... gut.

For a fan base that cheered wildly for him during a breakout rookie season, it wasn't just about the numbers, which were huge.

It was the style. The knack for catching the ball in a crowd. The ability to get open. The Spider-Man-like stickiness of his hands.

Play after play after play.

He was on his way to Illini immortality. The best receiver in school history, Hall of Famer David Williams, had 3,392 yards in the 1980s. It's a record I would have told you would never be broken. But Dudek, after one spectacular season, was on pace. The biggest issue at the time wasn't whether Dudek could put up four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but whether he would be gone to the NFL after No. 3.

But sports can be cruel. In the spring of 2015, with Tim Beckman still the coach and Bill Cubit his offensive coordinator, Dudek suffered a torn ACL on his right knee.

He tried to get back on the field for Cubit, who took over on an interim basis after Beckman was fired just before the season. Eventually, it was decided to hold Dudek out for the year. He had a redshirt left and used it.

The tough luck continued for Dudek in 2016. In Smith's first spring as Illinois head coach, Dudek suffered a second torn ACL to his right knee. He missed the entire season.

Showing promise

Dudek got back on the field in 2017. He missed five games with different ailments.

Working with three quarterbacks, he caught 24 passes.

Garrick McGee's system didn't suit Dudek. But when Rod Smith was hired as the new offensive coordinator, it seemed to be a great decision for the receiver.

Vowing it would be his last year at Illinois, Dudek worked and worked and worked. In the offseason, he ran a 40 time that defied his knee injuries.

Dudek also took more of a leadership role with the receivers. Just like he had been mentored early in his career, Dudek wanted to help push the younger guys.

His relationship with his teammates and coaches might explain the mournful reaction at Memorial Stadium on Monday.

There was shock. And concern for Dudek. And the sadness that he won't be on the field again this season.

Injuries happen. But rarely one as critical to the fortunes of the team.

The one that jumps into my mind came during the Ron Turner era. In 2000, star receiver Brandon Lloyd suffered a mysterious offseason broken leg. A year after a stellar rookie year, Lloyd couldn't go and the team suffered, finishing 5-6. Lloyd returned in 2001 and had a monster season for the Big Ten champs, catching 65 passes for 1.062 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Don't count him out

Will Dudek play again at Illinois? Doubtful.

But ... Lovie Smith did not mention surgery Monday. That's a good sign. And anyone who has followed Dudek knows he is a tireless worker. If there is a way to get back on the field, even for a bowl game, he will try.

More likely, Dudek will dedicate himself to rehab and take a shot at the NFL.

Football is clearly not good on the knees. Especially at a position like receiver, where you are getting hit while your feet are planted in the turf. Something's got to give and it is often the legs.

Dudek will have missed three full seasons because of knee injuries. That will be a red flag for the NFL, which is worried as much about durability and liability as it is ability.

Dudek's future will be cleared up in the coming weeks and months. After the second torn ACL, many would have guessed his Illinois career was over. That was wrong.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

-