CHAMPAIGN - Star receiver Mike Dudek's recovery from a torn ACL was a key storyline throughout the 2015 Illinois football season and -- after he sat out the season -- the offseason.
Little attention was paid to promising freshmen Dre Brown and Patrick Nelson, who were alongside Dudek for almost every surgery, swing (of the crutches), step, squat and sprint on the road to recovery.
Like Dudek, both Brown (a running back out of DeKalb) and Nelson (a safety out of Chicago) last spring suffered torn ACLs during non-contact drills.
“Me and Dre, we were already close (from recruiting)," Nelson said. "But with him and Mikey, we were all like a brotherhood. They motivated me. I tried to catch them in their rehab. It was all motivation. We’re all family.”
Neither Nelson nor Brown was expected to make a Dudek-like impact -- of course, Dudek wasn't exactly expected to accumulate 1,038 receiving yards during his freshman 2014 season -- but both were expected to contribute.
Nelson, a 6-foot, 205-pound hard-hitting safety, last season was expected to contribute on special teams and possibly crack the safety rotation.
“It was very disappointing," Nelson said. "I never missed a game in my life. To miss my first college football season, it was heartbreaking. But I learned a lot from just sitting on the sidelines.”
Nelson is known as a hard hitter who would've fit in the strong safety mold of former Illini Clayton Fejedelem, an eighth defender in the box who can help combat the Big Ten's robust rushing attacks. For now, Taylor Barton will fill that role. But Nelson is in the mix for playing time, especially on special teams.
Nelson said he's been cleared for 100 percent activity for about a month. But even a year after suffering the injury, he understands his recovery is not yet complete.
“It’s feeling great," Nelson said. "I’m still trying to get my confidence back. This (Tuesday) was only my third college practice."
Brown, a four-star recruit, had won the No. 2 running back job behind Josh Ferguson before suffering the knee injury late in the spring. He had to watch as classmate Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who arrived in June 2015, took over the No. 2 job and filled in as the starting back when Ferguson, a senior, missed four games due to injury. Vaughn ultimately led the Illini with 723 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
“It was awesome just seeing his growth and how to be a Big Ten running back, knowing that I could have been there," Brown said. "It was awesome. I was supporting him all along the way, even though it was hard just for me to be on the sideline. I wanted to be out there. But it’s exciting times.”
Brown again assumes the No. 2 role, now behind -- and sometimes alongside -- Vaughn.
“Things are going good," Brown said. "I’m just learning the new playbook, which is a big adjustment. I’m getting my feet back and getting back in football shape. I’m feeling strong, feeling confident. I worked hard on my rehab and I’m just ready to go right now.”
What does Brown add to the running back rotation?
"He can move," Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "He's low to the ground. He's hard to tackle. When you play a running back though at this type of level at this type of conference, you take a pounding. You got to see how he responds when he takes a pounding in a live scrimmage and then how he's going to respond the next day. Because this conference is physical at running back and at the line of scrimmage."
While Brown and Nelson continue to work back from injuries, Dudek again is sidelined with a knee injury -- the severity of which is not yet known. Just a reminder to Brown and Nelson -- like lost seasons last year -- that nothing is guaranteed.
“Everyday we were working, just getting better and getting our knees better," Brown said. "We definitely built a bond. We’ll never forget that. That’s what fuels us every day to get out here and be great.”