No Longer the New Kid in Town

Mike Dudek spent spring semester finding his way... and making a name for himself.

FRANKFORT, Ill. — Mike Dudek enrolled early, adjusted to the college schedule, put in the work on the football side of things and used spring practice to make a name for himself.

Yes, the Naperville wide receiver's first few months at Illinois were considered a success, by his own and everybody else's measure. It was as if Dudek bought the ingredients, prepared and baked a student-athlete cake, all before his high school prom was set to take place.

But he didn't get to blow out the candles.

Dudek tweaked a hamstring the week of the spring game. He missed the chance to show the fan base what the buzz was all about.

"I tried my hardest to go," Dudek said, speaking while at an Illinois football camp for high school players. "All my family came in to watch me. Sometimes you just have to shut it down and not make it any worse. It was pretty hard."

Spring ended with Dudek watching from the sideline. That didn't diminish what he accomplished the 14 previous practices. Coaches raved about his work ethic. Teammates compared him to Wes Welker.

Coach Tim Beckman likes to tell a story about his youngest receiver. Dudek struggled in an early practice catching punts. That was strange considering his success on returns in high school. The next practice out, though, Dudek out-performed nearly everybody on the team at the same task.

The day between practices, Dudek threw a ball to himself in his dorm room and practiced the new cradling methods he'd been shown the previous day.

"That's how much the kid cares," Beckman said.

"Right when I got done with high school (in December) I started working out," Dudek said. "I feel like I came in prepared with all the workouts and with the running and all that. I got in the playbook and tried to get that down. I used all my resources, the coaches, film room, I used all that up."

By the end of March, Dudek's name was tossed around as a potential starter. At 5-11, 175-pounds, Dudek isn't the biggest receiver on roster. But he just might be the fastest.

A sub-4.4 40 time at camp last summer earned Dudek an offer. Illinois is where he wanted to play and his relationship with the coaching staff made it easy to commit.

Going from recruitment to enrollment didn't change anything, either.

"(Receivers) coach (Mike) Bellamy, he stayed the same way that he told me was going to be," Dudek said. "He's a players coach. All of his players like him. The coaches push you. They don't push you when they're recruiting you, but they want you to be the best you can be. That makes the team better. It changes a little bit when you get to school, but they want you to be better as a player and a person."

What did change was the chance for naps. Dudek routinely woke for workouts at 5:30 a.m. and didn't return to his bed until 10 p.m. Classes, practices, study halls, meals and finding his way occupied the time in between.

"You can see all the seniors kind of chilling and laying back," he said. "They told me I would get use to it, but my first few months I never got to sit down."

He class schedule was mostly general education, but still a full load. Geology, Spanish, Human Sexuality, Rhetoric and Finite Math.

"It was definitely a lot different going into class with 300 people versus 25," he said, comparing courses at Illinois to the ones he could have still been in at Neuqua Valley High.

Because Dudek showed up early in January, he had to show up early in June. Most members of the February signing class report in mid-June. Dudek had to arrived with the rest of the returning players last weekend.

That wasn't a problem for him. Dudek, who took a trip to Mexico with his dad last week before reporting, said he looked forward to beginning his first round of summer workouts.

"Getting to work with the team and getting to learn the playbook more," he said. "Since we only have six hours of class there is more down time. There will be a lot more football work put in. That's what I'm excited for."

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