CHAMPAIGN — Here’s the good news for Illinois football fans: Mikey Dudek is ready to play. Now.
"If we were playing a game tomorrow, I would play," Dudek said.
Here’s the bad news: The team doesn’t return to the field for nine months.
Recovering from two torn ACLs, Dudek expects to resume his career in 2017.
"I’m just getting ready for next year," Dudek said. "We’re going to have a good year."
Dudek was a guest Monday on "The News-Gazette Sports Page" radio show at the Esquire Lounge. The big crowd gave him a loud ovation when he was introduced.
"I’d say I’m at 100 percent," Dudek said. "I’ve been continuing in the rehab day in and day out, staying in there as much as I can."
Dudek started his Illinois career in 2014, earning Freshman All-America honors while setting an Illini record for yards (1,038).
He tore his ACL in the spring of 2015, tried to come back, but wasn’t able to get on the field. Early in Lovie Smith’s first spring practice in 2016, Dudek hurt the same leg and had to sit out again.
Dudek wanted to return to the field in the fall.
"I always wanted to play, but I don’t think I ever could have," Dudek said. "Physically, I was ready to go, but mentally it’s definitely a battle. You go through a lot of ups and downs. It’s really hard to deal with at times."
This spring will be important for his recovery. Dudek wants to show the coaches, teammates and himself that he can be effective again.
"It’s going to be rusty at first," Dudek said. "That’s going to be another mental battle. I’m a hard worker, and I’ve got good support around me."
Well-meaning fans, friends and family members have been asking Dudek the same question: "How’s the knee?" It’s the equivalent of "How’s the weather up there?" for a basketball big man.
"Any time you play and go through something like that, people are going to be asking you about it, which is kind of a nice thing at times, but a little overwhelming at other times," Dudek said. "Especially, when you are hearing it a lot. I understand it’s a concern."
The first knee injury was the first time Dudek had been hurt since breaking his collarbone in second grade.
Sitting out and watching the team struggle during a 3-9 season this year was difficult for Dudek.
"We know what we’ve got to do," Dudek said. "Our coaches have been at the highest level. They’ve coached in the Super Bowl. We’ve got the blueprint. We’ve got to listen to them, trust in them. When stuff gets tough, we’ve got to get on each other and not give up so easily.
"I feel that was a problem with us this year. We’d get down by 14 or 10 points and we’d sort of shut it down. You can’t have that."
With Dudek out, the Illini looked to other players. Malik Turner led the team in catches.
"He’s definitely going to be the leader of our room next year," Dudek said.
Dudek works out each morning with the strength staff. He then has rehab or treatments before running routes with the quarterbacks.
Dudek has already been in C-U a long time. He started school in the spring of 2014, graduating from high school early to enroll at Illinois.
"That was a huge learning curve for me," Dudek said. "I called my parents and I’d be like, ‘Wow, I’m not very good at football.’ I pushed through it. The 14th practice, it all started to click for me. I was confident. When you’re confident out there, there’s not many people that can stop you."
The next game for Dudek is the 2017 opener, Sept. 2 against Ball State.
"Hopefully, I’m as confident as I can be," Dudek said. "I’m sure there will be some nerves. I’m going to super happy, super excited."
Dudek is on his third head coach at Illinois. The changes have taught him plenty.
"You can battle through anything," Dudek said. "Adversity comes and goes. But in the end, it makes you a stronger person. All 100 of us on the team are going to be stronger men by the time we get out of here."
When will that be for Dudek? He graduates in fall 2017. He could transfer for his final two years, but Dudek isn’t going anywhere.
"This is my dream school," Dudek said. "This is where I’m staying. Loyalty and commitment means everything to me. I would never think about leaving."
The Illinois offense fits Dudek’s skillset. He can work either as a slot receiver or on the outside.
"Coach (Garrick) McGee is going to do the best he can to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers," Dudek said.