Lovie: Dudek's injury "hard to put into words'

Lovie: Dudek's injury "hard to put into words'

CHAMPAIGN — Mikey Dudek went across the middle to haul in a 24-yard reception from Illinois quarterback AJ Bush Jr. early in the fourth quarter Saturday against Kent State.

Dudek's reception put Illinois into a first-and-goal situation. Three plays later, Reggie Corbin scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard rush for what would ultimately become a 31-24 Illini victory in the 2018 season opener.

That reception also ended up being the last play Dudek would make for Illinois this season — and maybe his career. Kent State cornerback Jamal Parker rolled through Dudek's knees as he came down with the ball, and the redshirt senior wide receiver immediately limped off the field.

Illinois coach Lovie Smith announced Monday afternoon that Dudek would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

"Unfortunately, we had an injury that for me is just hard to put into words," Smith said. "Mike Dudek has worked so hard throughout his career. Some things are hard to understand, and that's definitely one of them. Mike's meant so much to our program."

Dudek's latest season-ending knee injury is his third since he arrived at Illinois in January 2014. After a breakout freshman season where he caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns, Dudek tore his right ACL during spring practice. Almost exactly one year later he tore the same ACL again. Dudek also missed five games of the 2017 season with multiple injuries.

Smith wouldn't confirm that Dudek's most recent injury was ACL-related, but the Illinois coach did say the injury was to the Naperville native's left knee this time.

"I wish I could do something," Smith said. "We're in mourning over there. Mike's one of the all-time favorites. When you fight through adversity the way he has, it's just tough, but he's come back from tough situations before. He'll do that again.

"I hate it, man," Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith added. "You hate it for him. He just hasn't had any luck with this type of injury. It's sad because I've watched that kid pour his heart and soul into his workouts and getting back. My heart goes out to him and his family."

Dudek's football future is unclear. Multiple season-ending injuries make a sixth year of eligibility possible, but he already holds a bachelor's degree in marketing and is taking 18 hours this semester to finish his master's in technology management.

"You can't allow adversity to define your life," Dudek tweeted Monday afternoon. "You must take the good with the bad and continue to move forward. I am forever (grateful) for all the support I have received these past 5 years. #NoBadDays. Thank you Illini Nation."

Bush said he spoke with Dudek earlier Monday in the Illinois weight room. The first-year Illini quarterback had a high five and a hug for a teammate he hadn't known long but with whom he already developed a good relationship.

"I'm thinking about him more as a person than as a football player," Bush said. "He's a great individual, and he's been through so much in his career. We've both been through a lot, and that's what we kind of connected with when I first met him. We had big plans for this place. I'm upset for him and I'm hurt for him, but to see him smile today was just great. I was so happy to see that coming out of him. He's taking it better than I thought he would."

Corbin said he was shocked when he heard the news. The redshirt junior first thought it was a joke and was still holding out hope Monday afternoon for any better news.

"I'm just praying for Mikey," Corbin said. "Outside of my teammate, that's my brother. I just want to be there for him. ... Mikey's going to be great on and off the field like he always is. You can guarantee that with Mikey Dudek, and he's always going to be there for his teammates and be a leader. Family doesn't leave family behind."

Illinois will turn to players like Trenard Davis, Centennial grad Dominic Stampley and freshman Carlos Sandy to replace Dudek at slot receiver. Stampley and Sandy are both also options on special teams, where Dudek was the Illini's punt returner. Davis has 10 career receptions, while Stampley and Sandy didn't catch a pass Saturday in their Illinois debuts.

"Some of those guys have got to be ready to roll," Rod Smith said. "I talked to some of them this morning, and they will be."