It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly two and a half years since we saw Mikey Dudek in a game.

Since then, the Tim Beckman scandal unfolded, Illinois fired its athletic director, the entire Bill Cubit era happened and Lovie Smith coached his first season with the Illini. To say that a few things changed since Dudek’s freshman season in Champaign would be an understatement.

Two anterior cruciate ligament tears washed away each of Dudek’s last two seasons. The guy who exploded onto the scene with 76 catches for 1,038 yards — an Illini freshman record — in 2014 didn’t have the career that many expected him to. At least not yet.

Dudek hopes that this comeback attempt will be his last. Fortunately, Smith said on Wednesday that Dudek was “totally cleared.”

There’s still no guarantee that a healthy Dudek will return to his 2014 form, though that’s certainly his goal.

Keep in mind that Illinois was Dudek’s only FBS scholarship offer. In other words, he proved people wrong before.

Here’s a little reminder of what made Dudek so productive his freshman season:

-Dudek’s coming out party

If you’ll recall, Dudek actually dropped his first career target. It would’ve been a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter in the 2014 season opener against Youngstown State.

But Dudek’s number was called again later on the drive. Fittingly, the YSU secondary forgot about him and he had what was probably the easiest touchdown of his football career (go to 1:22):

Dudek’s 49-yard catch later in the fourth quarter was a bit more impressive.

Dudek’s three catches in the season opener actually turned out to be a season low. That performance earned him B1G Freshman of the Week honors and made him a key part of the offense.

-Shows deep ball ability vs. Purdue

The lazy comparison for Dudek, at least back in 2014, was Wes Welker. In other words, he’s a short, quick slot receiver who can make tough catches. Never mind the fact that Dudek matched Brandon Marshall’s 22 MPH max speed as a high schooler and he had a 42-inch vertical.

If you watched Dudek against Purdue, you didn’t see Welker. Slot receivers aren’t supposed to be their team’s best deep threat.

Against Purdue, five of Dudek’s eight catches went for 20-plus yards. Three of them went for 30-plus yards. And no, they weren’t screens or quick slants in which he broke a couple tackles. Dudek got behind the Purdue secondary and looked more like Marshall than Welker.

Dudek finished that day with a whopping 200 receiving yards, which was a mark only three other Illini receivers had ever reached. It was a bit lost in the shuffle because it was a bad home loss vs. Purdue, and Illinois lost quarterback Wes Lunt to an injury.

But that day proved that Dudek could make big-time catches all over the field, no matter who was throwing to him.

-New quarterback? No problem

The sign of a great receiver is when he can produce big numbers no matter who starts at quarterback. Marshall had 12,061 career receiving yards in the NFL despite the fact that he never caught passes from a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Dudek showed that he was quarterback-proof in 2014. Reilly O’Toole filled in for the injured Lunt, but Dudek’s production didn’t plummet:

Receptions per game 6.3 5.3
Yards per catch 14.6 12.3
Receiving yards per game 92 65.7

Why is that significant?

The injured Chayce Crouch is the starter and the “unquestioned leader” of the team, according to Smith. He’s not a guarantee to make it through the entire season. Given Illinois’ bad luck with quarterback injuries in recent memory, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Jeff George Jr. got at least one start.

Dudek can help ease that transition if and when that time comes. That was something Illinois lacked when Lunt went down in the middle of 2016. The Illini didn’t have a reliable, every-down receiver like Dudek.

This type of skill doesn’t disappear with a quarterback switch:

By the way, that was future Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King on Dudek in single coverage.

-So, can he do it?

Plays like that are why Dudek can have success even if he’s not as explosive as he was pre-ACL tears. He probably didn’t get enough credit for his ball skills. Dudek wouldn’t have broken Illinois’ freshman receiving yards record if he was simply a productive slot receiver.

Obviously he has to be able to make cuts and accelerate out of his breaks. Defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep over guys who can’t get open.

There’s also the mental hurdle facing Dudek. As expected, he was in no-contact drills all spring. When he suits up for the season opener, it’ll have been 32 months since he played in a real game. There’s only so much practice can simulate. Recapturing that fearlessness on the first slant over the middle won’t be easy.

It’s challenging enough coming back from one ACL tear, much less two. Dudek’s willingness to stay on board despite coaching changes and long rehabs is admirable. No matter how much he contributes in 2017, it’ll be key just to have him as a full participant in team activities.

Just don’t be surprised if Dudek beats the odds again.