CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) It has been two seasons - and two ACL tears - since Mike Dudek last appeared in a game with Illinois.
A lot has changed around Champaign since. The coach is different, and so is the quarterback. Getting back the same old Dudek would be a big boost for the struggling program.
Dudek led all FBS freshmen with 79.8 receiving yards per game and set school freshman records with 1,038 receiving yards and 76 catches in 2014, but that was before two major injuries to his right knee. Second-year coach Lovie Smith is optimistic about Dudek physically - the junior's strength and conditioning numbers are up since his freshman season - but it's hard to be certain exactly what sort of player Dudek will be when he returns for Illinois' home opener against Ball State on Sept. 2.
''I think before he actually plays a game, there's a part of him mentally that will be there,'' Smith said. ''That's another step he'll have to take. What gives you confidence is that you know what you've been through.''
Dr. James Andrews performed Dudek's second ACL surgery about 17 months ago, but even with perhaps the world's best sports surgeon on the case, Dudek still had doubts about his future. Throughout his recovery, he leaned heavily on his parents and former Illini receiver Steve Hull. Hull graduated in 2013, but the two became friends when Hull visited campus the next season. Hull dealt with shoulder and hamstring injuries at Illinois and became a counselor for Dudek on managing his body.
There was also a whole lot of prayer.
''I'm very strong in my faith,'' Dudek said. ''I pray every night, I pray all of the time.''
The program looks a lot different since Dudek's last appearance at the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014. Tim Beckman was fired a week before the 2015 season amid allegations of player abuse, and Illinois was 3-9 in Smith's 2016 debut. Illinois scored just 13 TDs through the air in Smith's first campaign, and its passing offense ranked 11th in the Big Ten.
Malik Turner led the team with 712 receiving yards and six touchdowns and enters his senior year with NFL aspirations. He's one of the few players left on the offense from Dudek's freshman year, giving the Illini a potentially strong receiving corps if Dudek returns to form.
''We came in together,'' Turner said. ''He's been through a lot. He's been very mature and he's been really working hard to get back to where he is right now. It's really good seeing him out there. It's really good being back out there on the field with him.''
Dudek will be catching passes from his four-year roommate and new starting quarterback Chayce Crouch. The pair has never played in the same game at Illinois.
This year, they'll finally have their opportunity - and a lot to prove along with it. Dudek wants to show that he is still an All-Big Ten caliber player, and Crouch wants to show that Smith made the right choice naming him the starter.
Ultimately, however, Dudek wants to win. He knows that his team hasn't had a winning season since he came to Illinois, but believes his return can help be a catalyst for change.
''It'll be exciting,'' Dudek said. ''Just that adrenaline rush running out on Memorial Stadium, seeing all those fans cheer us on, (and) trying to get us back to where we need to be.''
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