RANTOUL, Ill. - Wide receivers sometimes have -- and sometimes earn -- the poor reputation as egotistical, self-centered football players. Yet, due to injuries to starters Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee, Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy only is encouraging selfish behavior.
“It's hard to see your brother go down and be injured," Bellamy said earlier this month. "But at the same time, that selfishness has to come out and say, 'Heres' my opportunity.' They all said it. Mikey stood up in front of the room and said, 'You guys better take advantage of this opportunity.' They all said it. G-Mo (senior Geronimo Allison) said, 'That's more (catches) for me. I'm going to take them.' That arrogance as a group sits well with me, because it means they're going to work hard for it.”
Hardee will miss a few games due to a foot fracture. The 6-foot-1 senior is still in a walking boot. Dudek, the sophomore standout, suffered a torn ACL during spring practice and will be out until at least October, and could be out for the season. He has started lateral work and appears comfortable on his surgically-repaired knee.
Last season, Dudek and Hardee combined for 7.3 catches per game that must be made up in Illinois' pass-happy offense.
The 6-foot-3 Allison is junior quarterback Wes Lunt's favorite target and other young wideouts have high ceilings, including 6-foot-3 sophomore Malik Turner and freshmen Sam Mays (6-foot-3) and Desmond Cain (5-foot-11). But Lunt also needs a reliable slot target and junior Dionte Taylor fits the bill.
The Florida native has repped with the first string since the start of camp and has hauled in catches in bunches at times.
“(The slot receiver) is very key," Lunt said. "When they go man-to-man, we have to have guys who win. We can’t throw it to G-Mo all the time because G-Mo is on the boundary and they can double-team, so we have to find a couple new guys.”
Taylor's career stats -- one career reception fo five yards, including no catches last season -- don't suggest a high-quantity target. Taylor has a build similar to former Illini Martize Barr (who had 19 receptions for 249 yards last season) but shows a bit more quickness in and out of routes. He and Lunt have built more of a rapport during camp, leading to a couple big days for Taylor. Now, he needs consistency and production.
The junior sounds ready to heed Bellamy's advice and get a bit selfish.
“I think by using that word he’s just saying that when the opportunity or our number is called, we have to make the best of it. We got to be perfect in that moment or in that play," Taylor said. "He calls it selfish because if you’re perfect in that play and in that moment, you know you’re going to get another call. He says, ‘One play turns into five. Five turns into more.’”
Allison (41 receptions for 598 yards and five touchdowns last season) and running back Josh Ferguson (50 receptions for 427 yards last season) are the likely candidates to lead the Illini in receptions this season. But with Dudek's return date still unknown, Taylor might be a good bet to finish next among Illini in receptions in that target-heavy slot spot.
Taylor said he's getting adjust to the new role, the new spotlight and the new selfish approach.
“I feel like when you’re coming in cold and your first play is called for the first time, there’s obviously some kind of pressure," Taylor said. "But once you start to get into a zone and you put plays together one play at a time, it turns into two, three or four plays, you really get into your zone and you’re stress free. It feels great. It’s back to that little league, youth football.”