Obviously, Illinois is making the right decision on Mikey Dudek. Not that it's the coaching staff's decision. Ultimately, the doctors must clear Dudek and Dudek and his family have to agree to play. I've heard all along that the Dudeks intended to take a full year of recovery and that's best for Mikey. He shouldn't rush his recovery and compromise his long-term health so that he can try to help Illinois try to make a bowl or a slightly better bowl. Dudek fully recovered with three full seasons of eligibility is best for both Dudek and Illinois.
Tim Beckman made an error in his initial statement about Dudek's injury. Dudek suffered the torn ACL on April 8. Yet, that day, Beckman said in a statement that Dudek "could return to the field in October." This statement created the expectation that Dudek would return at some point this season -- I receive questions each week about Dudek's timetable -- even if Dudek himself did not expect to return. Could Dudek physically play right now? Probably. He's been sprinting for a few months and started lateral work in August. He looks strong and fast. But recovery is both physical and mental. Cubit said Monday that Dudek is "still a few weeks away" from feeling ready.
The Illini can't afford any more hits at wide receiver and running back. The Illini will be without three of their top-five receivers on Saturday (Dudek, Justin Hardee and Marchie Murdock). Freshmen Sam Mays and Desmond Cain are thrust into larger roles. They will be without three of their top-five running backs (Josh Ferguson, Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin). Freshman RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn is pretty good, but I think it says something that Henry Enyenihi has just four touches the last two games. Behind him are Kendrick Foster and walk-on Cameron Tucker -- neither of which will likely get a Big Ten carry if the coaches can help it. Also, Illinois now is repping safety Caleb Day at receiver. Day -- a four-star athlete out of high school -- hasn't found a consistent role on defense but has some natural play-making ability. Expect just a few reps, but expect him to play more than walk-on Zach Grant, the current Illini sixth receiver. This also tells you what you need to know about JUCO transfers Tyrin Stone-Davis and Raphael Barr.
Illinois can compete in all of its remaining games, except maybe Ohio State -- especially if J.T. Barrett is playing quarterback (can Illinois really stop a running attack with Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott?). But it also feels like Illinois could lose any of its remaining games. ESPN's FPI currently projects the Illini to finish 7-5 with wins at Minnesota, at Purdue and vs. Northwestern. That sounds about right. Illinois should beat Purdue by double digits, but I also thought that last season. Illinois should outscore Minnesota pretty easily, but Jerry Kill has had bigger shockers. Wes Lunt is better than Christian Hackenberg right now, but Penn State's defense is really, really good. Same with Wisconsin. And who knows on Northwestern. I tend to agree with the FPI that Illinois should finish 7-5. I tend to think 6-6 is more likely than 8-4 though. Even with the injuries, 5-7 would be a major disappointment.
Bill Cubit made an interesting comment about redshirting, when talking about Dawuane Smoot and Chunky Clements on Monday. "You kind of wish you could've redshirted (Smoot) and Chunky," Cubit said. "They're juniors who are actually like sophomores out there who are really playing well. I know why (they weren't redshirted) but it would've been nice to have those guys for another two years." Beckman played Smoot and Clements as freshmen because 1) Illinois had little depth up front and 2) Smoot and Clements were more talented than their upperclassmen peers. But imagine if Illinois had redshirted the two disruptive defenders. Both would be All-Big Ten candidates as juniors AND seniors (assuming they wouldn't leave early). The same could be said about junior offensive tackle Austin Schmidt, who did not redshirt. The good news is that Illinois now has enough depth on the offensive line to redshirt high-ceiling guys like Nick Allegretti, Gabe Megginson and Adam Solomon. The Illini were able to redshirt DT Tito Odenigbo last season but an injury to Teko Powell forced Illinois to play Jamal Milan in the season opener. Though the talented freshman defensive tackle may still earn a medical redshirt if he misses the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Recruiting is really interesting for Illinois right now. The staff kept selling to recruits that it would be the staff long-term, and they seemed so close to commitments from a few players, including three-star cornerback Bryce Banks and three-star receiver Harry Ballard. But a big fish finally took a bite when 6-foot-7, 285-pound DL/OL Tre Johnson committed last week. Bill Cubit visited Johnson at his Orlando high school, The First Academy, last week and seemed to close the deal. Johnson fills a big need on the defensive line but also gives Illinois a little something to sell to other recruits. "See, THIS guy bought in. You should too." Of course, a few more wins (especially against programs like Wisconsin and Penn State) would help their cause. The Illini are focusing mostly on four positions of need: a speedy wide receiver, long defensive banks, offensive line depth and a kicker.
Kicker has become a priority for the Illini in recruiting, and it's no surprise given. Current kicker Taylor Zalewski will graduate at the end of the season, and junior David Reisner has struggled with consistency. Edmund (Okla.) Memorial kicker Braxton Pickard, the ninth-ranked kicker in the country will visit Illinois this weekend. The Illini also recently offered St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) James McCourt, and have made an impression on him.
Speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, I'm hearing the Illini got a good one in 2016 receiver commit Dominic Thieman. He struggles to get touches in a loaded offense -- and the Illini don't mind if he keeps a low profile -- but the 6-foot-3 wideout is a big target with big-play ability thanks to his athleticism.
It's getting down to crunch time for the university ledership to decide on the future of the athletic director. After hiring Beckman and overseeing multiple investigations into allegations of abuse within his athletic department, A.D. Mike Thomas does not have a high approval rating and many Illini fans do not want Thomas to make the next coaching decision. But the regular season is over on Nov. 28. Given that Illinois fired its coach seven days before the season, the coaching search really should be over within a few days after the Northwestern game so that the new coach can immediately quickly put together a staff and start recruiting. Illinois should not have a prolonged dance with prospective candidates. It's had all season to go through channels and guage interest of candidates. Well, Thomas -- who may choose to stick with Cubit long-term to avoid more turmoil, assuming Cubit wins enough games to earn faith from the fan base and recruits -- has had all season to guage interest. If the UI parted ways with Thomas, a likely multi-week AD search would commence. And who's leading that search? Interim chancellor Barabara Wilson? New president Timothy Killeen? A search firm? An appointed committee? And will that new AD need a prolonged search to settle on his new coach? At some point is Thomas the best man to make the decision? The situation is messy, messy, messy -- especially with rumors -- which ended up false -- about Thomas' future circulating last week.