CHAMPAIGN - Illinois really needs a wide receiver with the ability to get open against any type of coverage and the speed and agility to make plays after the catch.
Actually, the Illini already have that game breaker on the roster. He just isn't available to play -- not yet.
Redshirt sophomore receiver Mike Dudek -- who hasn't played since a 2014 season that earned him Scout.com Freshman All-American honors -- has been running straight lines for more than two months and recently progressed to making cuts on his twice-surgically repaired right ACL.
"He's improving daily, which he is," Illini head coach Lovie Smith said Monday. "Mike had a serious injury. He's getting better. As far as when he's going to play or anything like that, he's rehabbing every day physically. He's in to the game as much as you can possibly be mentally. But he's not ready to go."
Smith wouldn't put a timeline on Dudek's return from his second ACL tear in as many years.
"He's tested daily," Smith said. "These things, you don't have an injury like that and a month down the road, hey, you're ready to go. Especially when you had an injury and you re-injure it and go through the same injury again. You take every precaution possible, and that's what we'll do. But I see Mike daily involved and he's getting better physically and mentally."
Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee would love to add Dudek to an Illini offense that ranks tied for 11th among Big Ten teams in yards per pass attempt (6.6)
"We're really looking forward to him coming back," McGee said. "He's a guy that I think is a game-changing type of player. It's hard to deal with him one-on-one. He's very competitive. I remember him coming out of high school that's how he was, and then he came in here and did a really good job. He's definitely a guy we're looking forward to coming back."
That makes it sound like Dudek's return is inevitable. But McGee said there may be a date where it doesn't make sense for Dudek to use a full year of eligibility just to play a few games. Dudek is eligible to apply for a second medical hardship waiver. In August, Dudek told reporters that preserving a season of eligibility would not go into his decision on whether to return this season.
"He's got a couple more years to play," McGee said. "Hopefully I'm going to be around here a couple more years, so I can't wait for him to get back out there."
Dudek had surgery six months ago. Six months usually marks the earliest a player could return from an ACL repair. But Dudek has maintained that he would simply return when his body told him he was ready to return.
"If I'm ready, I'm going to play," Dudek said in August. "But if not, I won't be upset about it. I got a lot of years left of football, so I'm not going to rush back. I'm not going to push anything. I'm going to listen to my body, listen to my trainer, listen to my coaches. But if I can go, I'm going to go."