CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Late in Illinois’ win against Texas State last month, Illini receiver Mike Dudek went airborne above a defensive back, pulling in the go-ahead touchdown high over the desperate defender’s flailing hands.
Photos of the catch show the freshman receiver from Naperville, all 5-foot-11 of him, with his feet at the defender’s waist.
Yet a guy who can jump what appears to be a full 3 feet off the ground says he looks with a little envy at the player who regularly lines up down the line of scrimmage from him.
That’s the sculpted, 6-4 Geronimo Allison.
“I do all the time — I think we do all the time,” Dudek said. “You just see him running out there in practice. He’s just so smooth, so long.”
The two receivers have given Illinois (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten) something to get excited about in a season when just about everything around them is trending the other way. After consecutive losses to Nebraska, Wisconsin and Purdue, it isn’t clear where the next win is going to come from for coach Tim Beckman.
But Dudek and Allison make up a pair of receivers that no Big Ten team can quite match. They’ve combined for 67 catches, 1,067 yards and eight touchdowns.
Dudek’s 598 receiving yards are 22nd in the country and he’s been added to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, the annual honor for the country’s top college receiver. Allison’s 469 yards are 45th in the country and he has a knack for big games. Allison had six catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns in Illinois’ loss at Washington and five balls for 118 yards and a score in the loss at Nebraska.
“He is becoming more of a guy — the deep guy — for us,” Beckman said.
Allison is also the guy quarterbacks, particularly Wes Lunt, have been able to thread balls to in tight spaces.
“There’s really nowhere where the quarterback puts the ball that he can’t get it,” Dudek said.
Dudek has made big catches too, fueling comparisons to Wes Welker. His friends and family have had fun hearing those comparisons, Dudek said.
“They definitely all send me the articles and stuff when they get written, and send me tweets and all that. It’s been fun,” he said.
Both receivers landed at Illinois after failing to draw interest from bigger, better programs. Dudek got serious attention from only a few other schools. The day the offer came was the best day of his life, he said.
“I called my parents and my mom started crying,” he said. “It was awesome, and I knew I wanted to come here.”
Allison grew up in a rough part of Tampa, Florida. He has said he spent parts of his childhood in trouble, always knowing he wanted to play football but only more recently realizing that for that he had to apply himself in school, too. So the junior came to Champaign after playing at Iowa Western Community College, a detour that seemed to build his desire to be a go-to guy at Illinois.
Dudek and Allison now have to play without Lunt, the quarterback who delivered most of their 67 catches. Lunt broke a bone in his leg against Purdue and is out for at least several more weeks.
Illinois is now using a mix of Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey at quarterback. It’s a pairing that’s likely to mean more running, and perhaps fewer playmaking opportunities for the talented receivers.
“We’ve been a fairly good throwing team, one of the tops in the country,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “Now we maybe have to switch gears.”
Dudek said an offense that relies less on him and Allison would be fine if it gives Illinois a better shot at a win.
“At the end of the day you’d rather get a win,” he said. “I’m trying my hardest to get us a win.”
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