CHAMPAIGN - Entering last week's season opener, the healthy and available Illinois receiver corps had produced fewer career receptions than Mikey Dudek produced last season by himself (73) as a freshman.
Geronimo Allison: 41 receptions.
Malik Turner, a sophomore: 25 receptions.
Marchie Murdock, a redshirt sophomore: one reception.
Dionte Taylor, a junior: one reception.
Freshmen Sam Mays and Desmond Cain made their debuts against Kent State.
Breaking news: Dudek is not your average young receiver. Few adjust or succeed as quickly (or as greatly) as the injured sophomore receiver.
But with Dudek and senior Justin Hardee (47 career catches) out with injury -- Dudek could return next month but may miss the season after suffering a torn ACL during spring; Hardee (foot) could return in the next few weeks -- the Illini will need their inexperienced group of wideouts to mature quickly in a pass-happy, intricate offense.
They went through some growing pains last Saturday.
Sure, Illinois crushed Kent State 52-3 and quarterback Wes Lunt tossed four touchdown passes.But the Illini wideouts dropped several passes -- five according to interim head coach Bill Cubit.
“They’re cutting off routes, not looking the ball in,” Cubit said. “I attribute that to being a little impatient, wanting to do really well. ...Now after they settle in after a game, they should have a little bit more composure, a little more poise. They’ll be running their routes at the right depth and looking the ball. It’s mostly fundamentals, but I have full confidence those kids will play well.”
The green group flashed some talent, though.
Murdock munching for opportunity
Marchie Murdock caught his first collegiate touchdown pass on a perfect play call from the Kent State 34-yard line.
With two receivers already lined up on the right side of the formation, Murdock motioned from the left to right. The two receivers to the right both ran post routes, drawing the coverage to the middle of the field. Murdock snuck around the coverage on a wheel route. Lunt found a wide-open Murdock, who waltzed into the end zone.
“It felt good, can’t lie, getting your first touchdown,” said Murdock, who finished Week 1 with two catches for 42 yards and the touchdown. “But obviously, you got to focus on the next play”
After redshirting his first season and barely receiving any reps last season, Murdock -- now listed as a starter -- is eager for his newfound opportunities.
“It means everything,” said Murdock, a Texas native. “I have to really work hard in the winter and the offseason; just really grind and get the playbook and stay in for extra film and extra workouts and stuff; getting with Wes and learning what he wants to do. When I came out in fall camp, it just really started to come together.”
Murdock has flashed ability in training camp before. The coaching staff now wants those flashes to turn into a consistent stream of production.
“He’s finally matured and he’s coming into his own and he’s developed,” Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy said. “There are still some little things. He still has a little clown in him. He’s got to make sure he understands and focused. I think the biggest pleasure I have is that when it’s football time, now … he’s totally focused. He understands his role, and I think he’s embraced it. He doesn’t want to let it go. He’s scared to let it go. He knows you can be the flavor of the month.”
Turner turning a corner?
Malik Turner admits he was “frantic” as a freshman.
He started his college career with a splash, catching 10 passes for 98 yards in his first two games. But Turner barely made a ripple over the next six games (one reception for two yards). His playing time dipped due to missed assignments and poor route running.
“I just really didn’t want to mess up because I didn’t want to get taken out or anything,” Turner said. “So I just focused on what I had to do and not try to do too much. I feel less frantic (now) but you still have to be on your P’s and Q’s.”
Turner got back on track late in the season and ended with his best collegiate performance yet, catching six passes for 84 yards in the Heart of Dallas Bowl loss to Louisiana Tech. With Hardee out, Turner entered the 2015 season as the unquestioned starter.
But he’s still experiencing some growing pains. He caught one pass for eight yards in the opener and struggled with consistency during training camp.
“If you watched the game, I had a few rink-a-dinks, a few little mishaps,” Turner said. “I felt comfortable out there. I just had a few little misunderstandings. I just have to bounce back this week. I got to make plays when my number’s called. If I don’t, I’m sure they have faith in me that I can make the next play.”
Turner is one of the team’s best athletes and at 6-foot-3, his potential is high. But he’s still a bit raw.
He missed most of his high school junior season due to injury -- the Illini offered before his senior season despite the injury -- and is still perfecting the intricacies of Cubit’s offense.
“He’s always had the athletic ability that could just get him by, and I think right now the mental part of the game -- when he struggles with that -- it affects the physical part,” Bellamy said. “Because mentally if he’s not 100 percent sure, he runs his route short, he drops the ball or he blows an assignment. That mental part just takes him out. In our offense, you have to be just as sound as Wes as a receiver.”
If Turner or Murdock (or Taylor) don’t produce, a few freshmen may steal some of their reps.
Sam Mays backed up his standout training camp with a promising debut (two catches, 37 yards and a touchdown). Classmate Desmond Cain also received many Week 1 reps and caught a pass for eight yards.
Bellamy warned the returners that a few freshmen would push them.
“I told everyone in the room, ‘There’s no solid job,’” Bellamy said.
Mays, a 6-foot-3 Texas native with a smooth stride and great leaping ability, reminds coaches of senior Geronimo Allison. Cain, who displayed quickness in space during camp, is pushing fellow Florida native Dionte Taylor for reps.
Experience is the best teacher for the freshmen, Cubit said.
“You got to have some success,” Cubit said. “Mikey had a little bit of success early. Then they feel a bit better about themselves. The speed of the game is so much different than in high school, so you just keep working them.”
IIlinois doesn’t have another Dudek in the cupboard. Few teams do. But there’s still plenty of talent on the Illini receiver shelf.
With Dudek (and Hardee) sidelined, Murdock, Turner and the freshmen will be relied on more -- meaning they must mature more quickly.
“We welcome pressure as a receiver group,” Murdock said. “We embrace it. We know that we have to step up. It’s unfortunate that Mikey and Justin are out, but we just got to come together and embrace the challenge. We just got to go out and make plays because this offense is dependent on us.”