Illinois Fighting Illini fan-base, and the program as a whole, was shocked at Lovie Smith’s announcement that fan-favorite wide receiver Mike Dudek suffered a season-ending injury for the third time in his collegiate career.
Not only did Illinois lose a fan-favorite receiver, but they lost one of the most promising receiving prospects the Illini have had in quite a while. Dudek, in his fifth year of school at Illinois after already having suffered career ending injuries twice, was set for a breakout season to (ideally) cap off his collegiate career in a high-performance year.
The Illini will miss his ability on field for yet another year.
Due to the loss of Dudek, graduation of second-leading receiver Malik Turner, as well as the on-going suspension of one of last year’s starlet freshmen, receiving tight end Louis Dorsey, the Illini will have to look for new receiving threats going into their Week 2 matchup against the Leatherbacks of Western Illinois. They will also be without WR Carmoni Green, who is also serving an indefinite suspension for violation of team policy.
The Illinois Wide Receiving Situation
First, we should take an appreciation of the improved Illinois passing game. Though we’ve seen a small sample size with only one game being in the books, in which the Illini offense struggled in the first half, the team still looked to have a much-improved passing game from last year.
Fans in 2017 complained (almost endlessly) about the abysmal Illinois passing game.
The offense received a much-needed upgrade with the hiring of new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith, and the transfer of now-starting QB A.J. Bush, as well as some capable backups coming in with the 2018 recruiting class in Matt Robinson, M.J. Rivers, and Coran Taylor.
The Illinois passing game has a rejuvenated feel to it, and the improvement could easily be seen in the second half of last week’s game.
So, with an improved passing game, the question remains: Who does the new and improved passing offense look for in a receiving threat with Dudek and Dorsey out?
It will be a whole-staff effort to get the receiving ball moving.
Currently, the Illini staff has 11 players listed as potential downfield targets on it’s roster besides those who are injured or suspended.
They are: Ricky Smalling, Dominic Stampley, Sam Mays, Carlos Sandy, Caleb Reams, Justice Williams, Zac Holman, Edwin Carter, Dylan Thomas, Jordan Holmes, and Cam Stacy.
Though that may seem like a lot of recievers on a roster, of the available players for Saturday, just two recievers caught more than one pass last week against Kent State: Sam Mays, and Ricky Smalling.
Smalling led the Illini in receiving yards last year, with 31 receptions for over 500 yards. He also showed off his talent on Saturday, in a game where he once again led the team in receiving yards, with a slick double-move down the field against the Kent State cornerback. That reception led to the biggest Illinois reception of the day.
Word around the program at the moment is that Smalling was in a boot at practice. That being said, it is just a precautionary statement at this point, and as far as we know, Smalling will once again feature in Saturday’s game against Western Illinois.
However, behind Smalling, the depth looks a little shallow. Which could be an issue if Smalling is ruled out for one reason or another. The only other receivers to catch a pass last week besides Smalling and Mays were WR Justice Williams (after a positional change coming into the year), and RB Reggie Corbin.
Of the remaining wide receivers besides Smalling and Dudek, the three players to catch a pass last week totaled for 6 catches, and 55 yards.
Though not a bad total overall considering the lackluster first half, the stats once again show the impact that the loss of Dudek will have on the receiving core, and the Illini offense.
The good news for the Illini? They have some depth that can step up at the wide receiver position.
Breaking down the remaining wide receivers after the loss of Dudek (and disregarding Smalling, for breakdown’s sake), the Illini have some promise still to make up for the loss of Dudek. Let’s break down the key remaining players.
Sam Mays – One of three Illini recievers to catch more than 1 pass last week, the senior from Missouri City, Texas is a big target for the Illini. Mays is listed on Illinois’ website at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. He had his career-high in receiving yards last week against Kent State, and brings experienced to a mostly-young receiving core.
Dominic Stampley – Stampley, a Champaign native, transferred in this year to begin his sophomore year after spending one year at Coffeyville Community College, where he had 17 receptions for 278 yards. He averaged an incredible 16.4 yards per reception in his redshirt freshman year, and comes into Champaign with three years of elgibility remaining.
Stampley, a Champaign Centennial graduate, was all smiles after making his debut against Kent State. The Illini could definitely look to increase the looks that Stampley will get in the slot with Dudek being ruled out for the season. If Stampley could recreate even a small fraction of the success he had at Coffeyville, it would be a huge gain for the Illinois offense that will be looking for threats downfield on Saturday.
Carlos Sandy – Carlos “Ferrari Feet” Sandy comes into his freshman year at the University of Illinois after having been named a 3-star recruit by most services, and totaling almost 500 yards on just over 30 receptions as a senior.
Sandy also had an incredibly impressive junior year the year before at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Florida, pulling in 43 receptions for a massive 800 yards in the air. Sandy made his debut in the game against Kent State, but didn’t have a large impact on the game. He returned one kickoff for 28 yards, and the Illini will likely look to use him in that role again.
It’s entirely possible that we see Sandy’s workload increased though, in the game against Western Illinois, as Sandy can utilize great speed to get open downfield, something the Illini will look forward to using now knowing that A.J. Bush has a trustworthy arm in-game.
Justice Williams – Justice Williams has received high praise coming into this season after making a switch from the defensive side of the ball to being a sturdy wide receiver. The change happened after Williams impressed Coach Lovie Smith and staff in practice last year after an impressive catch made over former-Illini Jaylen Dunlap, who was one of Illinois’ best defensive backs at the time.
Williams made the switch in training camp prior to this season, and has impressed coaches with his size and ability to get vertical for the ball, using his long frame and big size to make plays. Williams is a good target for the Illini to look to use, and they targeted him a few times in the season opener with corner routes into the endzone. Though Williams only pulled in one catch for four yards last week, don’t be surprised if Rod Smith’s offense targets Williams more in the upcoming matchup.
The Non-WR Options:
There are a few other receiving threats on this Illinois team, currently, in other positions such as running backs and tight ends, but a good Big Ten team needs capable wideouts, even in the current conference, which focuses heavily on the run-game.
Players like Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein could get more receptions coming out of the backfield to make up for the loss of Dudek. We could see more targets for the Illini tight ends, and we should expect to once Luis Dorsey rejoins the team. We could also see other tight ends like Austin Roberts and Brandon Jones get increased targets.
Smalling will have a lot more pressure to succeed in the coming games, and he will also likely now see opponent’s best cornerbacks lined up against him. It will be interesting to see how he reacts.
Having options is a good thing, but without many sure-fire options outside of Smalling and a handful of others, Rod Smith is going to have to test the waters for who he can trust in-game. Look for QB A.J. Bush to spread the ball around a bit in the passing game on Saturday, for the team to feel out their receiving situation.
Overall, the Illini have a lot of options, and should be able to find some capable players to target for the rest of the season. Whether it comes from new-faces to the team, or out of the backfield, Rod Smith will be sure to test out all of his options after the loss of Dudek.