CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It has been two seasons and two ACL tears since receiver Mike Dudek last appeared in a game with Illinois.

A lot has changed around Champaign in that time: The coach is different, and so is the quarterback. Getting back the same old Dudek would be a big boost for the struggling program.

Dudek led all Football Bowl Subdivision freshmen with 79.8 receiving yards per game and set school freshman records with 1,038 receiving yards and 76 catches in 2014, but that was before two major injuries to his right knee.

Second-year Illinois coach Lovie Smith is optimistic about Dudek physically. The junior’s strength and conditioning numbers are up since his freshman season, but it’s hard to be certain what sort of player Dudek will be when he returns for the Illini’s opener against Ball State on Saturday.

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“I think before he actually plays a game, there’s a part of him mentally that will be there,” Smith said. “That’s another step he’ll have to take. What gives you confidence is that you know what you’ve been through.”

Dr. James Andrews performed Dudek’s second ACL surgery about 17 months ago, but even with perhaps the world’s best sports surgeon on the case, Dudek still had doubts about his future.

Throughout his recovery, he leaned heavily on his parents and former Illini receiver Steve Hull, who graduated in 2013. They became friends when Hull visited the campus the next season. Hull had dealt with shoulder and hamstring injuries at Illinois and became a counselor for Dudek on managing his body.

There also was a lot of prayer.

“I’m very strong in my faith,” Dudek said. “I pray all of the time.”

Dudek’s last game was the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014. Tim Beckman was fired as coach a week before the 2015 season amid allegations of player abuse, and Illinois was 3-9 in Smith’s 2016 debut.

Illinois scored just 13 touchdowns through the air in Smith’s first campaign, and the passing offense ranked 11th in the 14-team Big Ten.

Malik Turner led the team with 712 receiving yards and six touchdowns and enters his senior year with NFL aspirations. He’s one of the few players left on the offense from Dudek’s freshman year, giving the Illini a potentially strong receiving corps if Dudek returns to form.

“We came in together,” Turner said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been very mature, and he’s been really working hard to get back to where he is right now. It’s really good being back out there on the field with him.”

Dudek will be catching passes from his four-year roommate: new starting quarterback Chayce Crouch of Newark Catholic. The two have never played together in a game at Illinois.

This year, they are to finally have that opportunity — and they have a lot to prove. Dudek wants to show that he is still an all-league player, and Crouch wants to show that Smith was right in naming him the starter.

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Ultimately, however, Dudek wants to win. He knows that his team hasn’t had a winning season since he came to Illinois, but he thinks his return can help be a catalyst for change.

“It’ll be exciting,” Dudek said. “Just that adrenaline rush running out on Memorial Stadium, seeing all those fans cheer us on, (and) trying to get us back to where we need to be.”