CHAMPAIGN -- For Illini wide receiver coach Mike Bellamy, it was a simple decision.

As he studied Naperville Neuqua Valley wide receiver Mike Dudek, Bellamy felt positive about what he was seeing.

“I knew he was either going to catch 300 passes for us in his career, or he was going to catch 300 passes against us,” Bellamy said Friday night after the freshman Dudek once again dazzled with his quickness, sure hands and ability to find open spaces during an intrasquad scrimmage at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin High School.

“That’s why I stood on a table and told Coach Beck (head coach Tim Beckman) and Coach Cubit (offensive coordinator Bill Cubit) that I had to have him.

“This is a kid who should still be in high school, and to do what he is doing is unbelievable.”

What “Mikey” Dudek is doing is making it impossible for coaches not to play him, for quarterbacks not to love him, and for fans not to get excited every time he lines up in the slot and morphs into a young Wes Welker.

The comparisons to Welker are inevitable, and not just because they are each undersized and white. That’s not exactly the template for today’s NFL wide receiver.

Welker is listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. As an undrafted receiver for the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, he lines up in the slot and finds way to make plays. That’s why three times he has led the NFL in receptions.

Dudek, listed at 5-11, 180, appears to be on track to having a similar impact at Illinois and on Friday night, with several hundred fans watching, he stated his case.

He caught long balls, passes in traffic, passes with touch. He showed a burst and a fearlessness that has Bellamy and Beckman singing his praises even before he has played a single college game.

“Thank goodness we brought Mikey in in January to have this opportunity,” Beckman said. “It’s just spring practice No. 12, but you can see him get better and better every week.

“The thing about Mikey is his quickness. He works extremely hard, and he doesn’t play like a freshman. And he has great hands.

“The other thing about Mikey is that I’ve been working with him as a punt returner. You tell him once, and he gets it right.”

Dudek, who also ran track at Neuqua Valley, said he was so jacked up when he arrived on campus in January that he needed to be calmed down.

“When I came out for the first day of practice, I was nervous as anybody would be,” he said. “But I’ve settled down a lot since then. Coach Bellamy told me to slow down.

“I was just out there running, but once I slowed down I learned the play book and now it’s starting to click more.”

Dudek is used to the Welker comments.

“Of course,” he said. “He’s one of the best receivers in the NFL, and that’s my goal. If people are comparing me to a younger him, that’s pretty good. But I want to be better than him, obviously.”

Obviously.

Bellamy, who was a second-team All-American receiver at Illinois in 1989 and who played for the Eagles, Colts Bears and Raiders in the NFL, won’t discourage Dudek from thinking big.

In fact, it’s one of the many things he likes about the confident 18-year-old.

“Honestly, he was one of those guys who you knew just loved football and while I was recruiting him I asked, ‘Do you love football so much that you’ll give everything you have?’

“And he’s in the film room every day, after practice, before practice, and sometimes I have to tell him to relax because when the game becomes slow to you, that’s when you become special. And right now he’s getting the grasp of what it means to become a top football player.

“Plus, his mom makes great cookies.”

Two of the major story lines this spring were said to be the competition at quarterback, where Illinois must replace Nathan Scheelhaase, and the competition at wide receiver, where replacements must be found for Steve Hull, Ryan Langford, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris.

If it’s suspense you want, suspense you won’t get.

Wes Lunt will be the starting quarterback.

Dudek and junior college transfer Geronimo Allison will be two of the starting wide receivers. Nothing could be more certain.

The mystery is on the defensive side of the ball. Will Illinois be much improved there? Those are the critical questions that won’t be answered until the fall.

On offense, despite heavy losses at skill positions, the situation is bright. Dudek -- an early enrollee freshman who is playing well beyond his age and experience -- looks ready to go right now.

Executive Sports Editor of the Herald & Review

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