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Illinois' Mikey Dudek takes the hits and keeps on crushing it

Sunday mornings brought bitter reminders to Mikey Dudek of how important he was to Illinois’ offense. A true freshman wide receiver from Naperville, Dudek would first guide his achy legs out of bed, then see if he could raise his arms above shoulder level. No go. This was the price of becoming the focal point of the Illini passing attack.

“It was a long, tough season for me,” Dudek, 19, said before his 6-6 team made way for Dallas and a bowl matchup with Lousiana Tech.

There was one hit in particular he won’t ever forget. It was delivered by Penn State’s 6-1, 236-pound linebacker Nyeem Wartman — more wallop than the 5-11, 185-pounder had ever experienced.

“He came full speed and just nailed me,” Dudek said. “I hit my head and was just out of it.”

But Dudek corralled 11 passes for 115 yards in that 16-14 victory. A week later, in a must-have win at Northwestern, he had seven catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. More than half of quarterback Reilly O’Toole’s completions and passing yards went to the former Neuqua Valley star in those contests.

Heading into Friday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dudek — the most prolific freshman pass catcher in Illinois history — has 69 receptions for 965 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers rank second, third and tied for sixth, respectively, in the Big Ten this season. Dudek’s 80.4 receiving yards per game leads all freshmen nationally.

“Mikey’s a rare breed,” said former Illini standout Steve Hull, who led the team in all receiving categories in 2013. “His potential is something I don’t think he can fathom yet. He can definitely break every receiving record at Illinois if he wants to.”

Hull knows a thing or two about playing with pain. He had major shoulder issues in college that flared up during a training-camp stint with the New Orleans Saints; he calls the resulting nerve damage in his right arm “significant.” He now trains players at all levels as director of football operations for Highland Park-based EFT Sports Performance.

Hull and Dudek met after an early-season game at Memorial Stadium and since have talked weekly about catching the ball and preserving the body. They plan to train together during the offseason.

“I really do see him as an NFL guy,” Hull said. “He’s got the raw potential to be one. He definitely has the ability — that’s not in question. He’s such a team guy. And the passion he has for football is so innocent and pure. That’s why people love him.”

That includes Dudek’s veteran teammates, which is no small point. You think it’s easy for an older, established player to look on as a freshman rolls in, makes the game look easy and almost instantly becomes a — make that the — fan favorite?

Martize Barr’s final year of college football — his second at Illinois — was supposed to be the best one. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit projected a breakout for the former junior-college transfer, who caught 26 passes for the Illini in 2013. Nineteen receptions later, Barr is a relative afterthought compared with a certain freshman who has flourished in the very role Barr had been determined to play.

Tension in the ranks? Hardly. From the start, Barr hasn’t been able to help but like Dudek. They all do.

“He hasn’t been having the success he’d hope for,” Dudek said, “but he hasn’t once not helped me or not tried to get me out of a funk when I’m in one.”

Dudek’s brother, Danny — one year older to the day — completely gets it. Danny can run like his little brother. He was always a good player himself and even played some wide receiver and running back at Dayton, where he remains a student. But Mikey … well, he has this way of dominating. What’re you gonna do?

“He has been a star since literally, like, sixth grade,” Danny said.

But there’s no bigger fan than Danny. The Dudek brothers share the same circle of friends back home, many of whom joined parents Lynn and Rick Dudek and other relatives at every home game this season. They’ve all been watching Mikey’s magic act for years.

“But he’s just a down-to-earth, humble kid,” Danny said. “You would never know he’s doing this well in football. He comes home and acts like it’s nothing.”

On campus, it’s much harder to pull that off.

“Usually everywhere I go, I’ll have one or two people come up and ask for a picture,” Dudek said. “It’s kind of cool, especially on campus [where] a lot of guys are built like me, kind of look like me. It’s cool that someone could distinguish me from all these people.”

If nothing else, it has made getting out of bed on Sunday mornings more fun.


Twitter: @slgreenberg