Sophomore Desmond Cain resumes the role he played last season: Mikey Dudek's slot replacement. Cain isn't as explosive or as reliable as Dudek, but he had a pretty productive freshman season, hauling in 53 receptions for 492 yards. The Florida native quickly became one of quarterback Wes Lunt's only trusted targets as a check-down safety blanket. Illinois would like Cain's yards per reception to top 10.0 yards this season and for him to make more big plays after the catch. But Cain certainly will get another high quantity of touches.
If anyone left on this roster has No. 1 wideout ability, it's Malik Turner. Talent has never been the issue for Turner. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound rising junior is long, strong, athletic and fast. He struggled early last season -- coaches said a lot had to do with confidence -- catching just two passes for 15 yards over the first three weeks. But something seemed to click after that. Turner finished the year with 39 catches, 510 yards and three touchdowns -- including 19 catches for 233 yards over the final three weeks. Turner takes over for NFL-bound Geronimo Allison as the big, physical target with a wide catch radius. Turner has the chance to be a pro. He can start building that resumé now.
Like Dudek, Justin Hardee missed all of last season with an injury (a fractured foot). The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior has never topped 20 catches in a season but he will get every opportunity to do that this season. Hardee definitely adds speed to the Illini wideout group. He's one of the fastest players on the team and can take the top off the defense. Safeties must always account for him, which could open some space for other targets. Hardee might not be the move-the-sticks target, but he certainly could be the big-play target.
The former Illini staff compared the lanky, athletic Sam Mays to Allison. Like Turner, Mays struggled with confidence and reliability last season -- expected for a freshman. But he flashed a high ceiling in camp and early in the season. Mays isn't the fastest but he has a huge catch radius thanks to his height, arm length and leaping ability. He's a bit of a wild card this season, but his opportunities just increased.
Dionte Taylor entered last season as the favorite to take over the slot job in Dudek's absence. He shined at camp some days, making some amazing grabs, but then struggled mightily others days, dropping several balls. That inconsistency translated to the season as Taylor never really gained a rhythm or confidence, finishing the season with 22 catches for 212 yards as the fourth or fifth receiver. Expect similar production but hope for more.
A freshman wideout
Dudek's injury not only steals the Illini of its most quality wideout but it simply takes away one of its quantity of wideouts. The Illini, who already had lost Marchie Murdock to transfer, have talent at the position but another injury would start to make this a thin group -- unless one of the incoming freshmen, Mj McGriff or Dominic Thieman, is ready to make an impact. McGriff strictly is a slot receiver. The 5-foot-9 wideout is small but has good speed with elusiveness in the open field. Thieman led a ridiculously talented St. Thomas Aquinas team in receiving last season. The 6-foot-2 wideout has played top prep competition the last few seasons and could be ready to make an impact on the perimeter.
But wait, isn't he a running back? Yes, but the Illini can replace some of Dudek's yardage production with the talented redshirt freshman back. Brown has looked healthy and effective so far this spring. Brown is best in space -- the Illini's version of Matt Forte? -- with good speed, a long stride and good one-cut ability, but his is untested between the tackles. Brown has displayed plus receiving skills out of the backfield. Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee likes to run a more balanced attack than previous coach Bill Cubit, so Brown -- the No. 2 back behind Ke'Shawn Vaughn -- could get a lot of touches. One of the Illini's best formations features Vaughn and Brown in the same backfield.
The tight ends?
The Illini tight ends combined for just 18 catches for 108 yards last season. The lack of pass production -- the bigger impact was probably in the run game in the red zone -- partly was due to injuries to starter Tyler White and H-Back Tim Clary. White is out most of the spring as he recovers, so senior Andrew Davis and redshirt freshman Caleb Reams are getting plenty of reps this spring before a trio of freshmen -- Andrew Trainer, Zarrian Holcombe and Griffin Palmer -- arrive this summer. Davis, one of the top JUCO recruits in 2015, didn't have the strength to make a big impact last season. He's got the skill package to be a productive receiver and the willingness to block, but he needs to continue to add strength and gain confidence. Don't give up on him yet. Reams is a bit short (6-foot-3) for the position but has a good skill set, including plus athleticism and hands. Trainer (6-foot-7, 245 pounds) has the physical tools to contribute right away, and while Holcombe needs to add strength, he is an intriguing receiver option. Palmer needs a season or two to add strength. The Illini probably won't ask for a lot out of this inexperienced, young group. But they need to at least double last season's production.