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Thursday Morning Brews (4/16/15)

One of the Big Ten's best receivers goes down, but what does it mean for his team?

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Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

What Mikey Dudek's ACL Injury Means for Illinois

There were three 1,000-yard receivers in the Big Ten last year: the departed Tony Lippett, Rutgers' Leonte Carroo, and Mikey Dudek. He had the only 200-yard game of anybody in the Big Ten (coming against Purdue), and led the Illini to a late-season victory against Penn State. Receivers don't usually lead offenses - often, they're afterthoughts to the quarterbacks and runners who see the ball more. But it was clear to anyone who watched Illinois football that Mikey was a star in the making - a special and amazingly overlooked (Rivals: 5.5, low three-star) talent.

The news that Mikey Dudek tore his ACL this past week, then, was a tough emotional blow for a program tepidly on the rise. Only five months ago, buzz around the Illini program was about who might replace Tim Beckman. But after a 16-14 victory over Penn State that was largely fueled by Dudek and a subsequent demolishing of in-state foe Northwestern, optimism has slowly started returning to Champaign. Dudek, who was the best freshman receiver in college last year and the most recognizable face on the team, was at the center of that surge in optimism. Now, he'll be out until at least October.

As devastating as the news is, it might not slow down Illinois' tortoise-like rise into the Big Ten's upper echelon. Beckman's first order of business this off-season was to find a quarterbacks coach who could get through to the NFL-talented but erratic Wes Lunt, and, this week, he tabbed Bill Cubit's son, Ryan, to help tutor the 6'5", 225-pound junior quarterback who would probably remind Michigan fans of Shane Morris: an amazing arm, great touch, and way too many questionable decisions.

Ryan Cubit, who played quarterback at Western Michigan from 2003-06 under his father, took the Broncos' quarterbacks coach job in 2008 and immediately took an offense that was pretty good the year before (62.9% completion rate, 3,211 passing yards, 7 yards a throw) and made it elite (64.7% completion rate, 3,831 passing yards, 7.2 yards a throw and 37 touchdowns to 10 interceptions). Western Michigan's quarterbacks threw 86 more touchdowns than interceptions in his five years there, and hit almost 63% of their targets. Two of his mentees signed NFL contracts.

It isn't just Lunt who hints at the chance for continued growth. The top two wide receivers after Dudek, Malik Turner and Geronimo Allison, both offer break-out potential. Turner, like Dudek, is just a sophomore, and flashed plenty of potential last year. Junior college transfer Geronimo Allison "hit a wall" after coming from Iowa Western Community College, getting 418 yards on 20 yards a catch during Illinois' first five games ... and 180 yards the rest of the way. After getting some time off in December, he broke out in Illinois' bowl for a solid 72 yards.

This also means a bigger role for the tragically underused Josh Ferguson, who has produced at a similar level as some of the league's top backs. Over the last two seasons, Ferguson has been about a yard per touch more productive than Jeremy Langford or David Cobb, two productive possession tailbacks who became faces of the Big Ten.

Total yards and production, last two seasons
Yards per touch Total yards
Melvin Gordon 7.66 4,359
Tevin Coleman 7.48 3,328
Ezekiel Elliott 7.13 2,383
Ameer Abdullah 6.41 3,802
Josh Ferguson 6.40 2,476
David Cobb 5.41 3,164
Akeem Hunt 5.36 2,046
Jeremy Langford 5.21 3,163
Mark Weisman 4.15 1,865

The offensive line loses two of its five starters, which would matter if any of the five had played well last year. Mikey Dudek really was Illinois' only sure thing on offense, and his 76 receptions made him one of the most leaned-on receivers in the game. He was their most explosive play-maker, too, even more than Ferguson. Now, the Illini must turn to the running game and some skilled but unproven receivers to make their offense work.

Still, there's hope that Illinois can manage half of the season without Dudek. If they can develop some other parts of the team, and especially if they can find some competency on the line, then Beckman's squad will enter critical meetings with Wisconsin (Oct. 24) and Minnesota (Nov. 21) with a healthy Dudek and a chance to shake up the West hierarchy. It's unlikely they beat either team - even though Illinois managed to steal one last year from Minnesota, and came within 10 points of beating Wisconsin - but a healthy Dudek and some continued growth spell opportunity. And for a beleaguered program like Illinois, that's good enough for now.

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