Illini Inquirer is breaking down one Illini football position group per day, leading up to the start of Illinois training camp on Thursday, Aug. 4.
Today - Illini wide receivers
The depth chart
Stats: 39 receptions, 510 yards, 3 TDs as a sophomore
Analysis: Malik Turner has all the physical makings of a No. 1 Big Ten wideout. He's tall (6-foot-3), strong, pretty fast and one of the team's top athletes. He has a wide catch radius, has pretty good body control and is very physical and effective as a run blocker. All he's seemingly lacked his first two seasons is confidence. He had just six catches during four nonconference games but really turned it on during conference play, averaging 59.8 receiving yards per Big Ten game (just 5.2 yards per game fewer than Geronimo Allison). Turner is similar to Allison in many ways, only he's stronger. Now, he assumes Allison's role as the No. 1 guy.
Stats: 53 receptions, 492 yards, 1 TD
Analysis: With basically every other Illini dropping well-placed passes, Desmond Cain quickly became a favorite for quarterback Wes Lunt. He was no Mikey Dudek, but he was solid and reliable. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Cain dropped just three passes versus 53 catches -- good for the second lowest drop rate among Big Ten wideouts. Cain is a reliable slot target. He runs quality routes, gets open and catches the ball. He keeps drives alive. Cain's one issue is that he didn't bust many big plays. Of his 53 receptions, only six went for 20 or more yards. He won't run by, juke past or jump over many defenders (like Dudek did as a freshman). Ideally, he would improve some of that quick-twitch ability with a new strength coach and take a big step forward as a playmaker. But if he's just reliable again, he fills a much-needed role for Lunt and this offense.
Year: Redshirt senior
Stats: Missed last season (foot); 47 career receptions, 527 yards, 1 TD)
Analysis: Justin Hardee has always had great potential. But he's never topped 20 receptions in a season and had a pretty disappointing junior season in 2014. He's had a great recovery since missing last year with a broken foot, but it's time for him to step up. Hardee seemingly is the one Illini receiver that can take the top off the defense due to his solid height and blazing speed. But he frustrated the previous staff with his lack of reliability as a route runner. We'll see if he's matured since we saw him play last almost two calendar years ago.
Stats: Seven catches, 78 yards, 1 TD as a true freshman
Analysis: Like Turner, Sam Mays is a gifted athlete with great length (6-foot-3). He showed some potential early in the season but lost his confidence and his role midway through the season. He had zero catches over the last six games. Mays has a great potential as a go-up-and-get-it player. Like Allison, he's a bit thin but has a wide catch radius, great leaping ability and big hands. But he still needs to add strength and adjust mentally to Big Ten physicality.
Stats: 22 catches, 216 yards, 0 TDs
Analysis: Some days during fall camp last year, Dionte Taylor looked like one of the Illini's go-to targets. He made acrobatic catches in the slot and broke off chunks of yards after the catch. Other days, he came down with cases of the drops. Unfortunately, the latter was more of the telling sign for the season. Besides Allison, Taylor seemed like the biggest offender of drops last season. His fundamentals were poor as he tried to make defenders miss before he even caught the ball. He quickly lost his job to the more reliable and productive Cain. Taylor had a solid spring and still can play a role in the rotation, but the Illini need better from the senior.
Stats: One career catch, seven yards
Analysis: Let's get this out of the way early. Walk-on Zach Grant's history with Lunt is pretty overrated. Lunt flat told me that this spring. Yes, Grant and Lunt were really good friends at Rochester who grew up playing sports together. Yes, Grant set the state single season receiving yards record (2,310) when he played at Rochester with Lunt. But Lunt said that the prep chemistry doesn't automatically translate to college chemistry. Lunt has more talented options. He's going to throw to who he trusts will make plays. Grant has just one career catch so far. But Grant did have a strong spring, impressing offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. Grant runs good routes but doesn't have a lot of quick-twitch ability nor size. Still, the Illini are thin at receiver and he has a chance to find his way into the rotation. He's one to watch against Murray State and Western Michigan. If he has good games early, maybe he can gain some confidence and stay in the rotation.
Year: True freshman
Analysis: Dominic Thieman played in a St. Thomas Aquinas wide receiver corps with two 2016 teammates who signed with Miami and four 2017 teammates who will play Division-I football, including top-25 overall prospect Trevon Grimes. Yet, Thieman was the one to lead STA in receiving with 34 receptions, 508 yards and five touchdowns. Several FBS teams tried to come in and swoop Thieman through all the turnover at Illinois, but he held firm and Illinois may have gotten a good one. Thieman isn't the fastest, but he is a very polished wideout. He runs great routes. He has good length, long arms and good athleticism. He high-points passes and plays physical. He has made a strong impression early and seems to have a good chance of cracking the rotation this fall.
Year: True freshman
Analysis: Mighty mite Mj McGriff looks about 5-foot-7, but he has great speed and elusiveness. If he can make plays in space, he may be able to find a way onto the field as a freshman. His best shot may be as a returner, where the Illini will have an open competition.
Stats: Missed last season (torn ACL); 76 receptions, 1,038 yards and six TDs
Analysis: After a first season that earned him Scout.com Freshman All-America honors, Mike Dudek looked like a certainty to re-write the Illini receiving record book. But after tearing the same ACL back-to-back springs, David Williams' records appear safe. Injuries are always a bummer but even more so for such a talented player who works so hard. As can be expected, Dudek had some tough times this spring, but he has had much better spirits recently. We don't know what kind of player he will be when he returns, but Dudek is in great shape and early returns are that his recovery is going well.
1. Is Malik Turner ready to be a No. 1?
I think he is. Turner is a pro-style chain-moving receiver who seems to fit well in Garrick McGee's offense. He loves to block and does it well, which should help the run game. He also is a great target for Wes Lunt's favorite throw -- the back-shoulder laser on the sidelines -- thanks to his strength, length and athleticism. Turner also is a pretty good athlete and can make plays in space, especially over the middle, and can be go-to red-zone target for Lunt. It's unclear how much McGee will throw (though it'd be weird if he didn't pass a lot with Lunt), but a good goal for Turner would be 45-55 catches for 620-750 yards and six-plus touchdowns.
2. Who will step up as a playmaker?
Illinois has some intriguing options at receiver, but it needs a guy who can complement Turner and scare teams when he gets the ball in his hands in open space -- you know, other than their injured star. Hardee has good straight-line speed, but can he consistently get open? Cain and Taylor usually can get open, but can Cain make defenders miss and can Taylor show reliable hands? Mays and Thieman are more similar to Turner. McGriff has some game-breaking ability but does he have the reliability and strength to earn an early role?
3. Will (or when will) Dudek return?
Dudek could have returned to play around mid-October last year (he had been cleared to play) but chose to sit out last season to preserve eligibility and make sure he was completely mentally ready to return to play. After tearing the same ACL again (this time Dr. James Andrews repaired the ligament), preserving eligibility is no longer a concern. Dudek wants to play this season. So if he is cleared to play by doctors, expect him to return. But if all goes well, what kind of Dudek would we see? He's been great in the weight room and is still one of the fastest players on the team. He certainly can help the Illini. But his health should remain the No. 1 priority.