CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema and his assistant coaches frequently have spoken about bringing Illinois football to championship games.
Prather Hudson knows exactly what it’s like to reach such a plateau. A former Georgia safety and running back, he played on special teams during the Bulldogs’ 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in the 2018 College Football Playoff national title game.
Hudson now is an Illini, a decision the sixth-year college athlete announced on Jan. 26. Can he envision Bielema’s idea of getting Illinois to the level once occupied by that Georgia squad?
“I believe in Coach Bielema, and I believe the staff he’s put together is top-notch,” Hudson said Thursday from within the Illini’s Smith Center. “I’ve seen what it takes to go to a championship game, and he’s definitely got that mindset and that culture that he’s going to instill in this program.”
Hudson’s verbal commitment to Illinois made him the sixth transfer Bielema has landed since Illinois hired him on Dec. 19.
Three of them come from teams that have played in the College Football Playoff at least once in the last four seasons: Hudson, Alabama defensive back Eddie Smith and Notre Dame receiver Jafar Armstrong.
“The Georgia coaches spoke very highly of (Bielema),” Hudson said. “It got me excited because I knew if I came to Illinois there wouldn’t be a drop-off in coaching — that, when I go there, I’d get the best of the best.”
Hudson made first contact with the Illini via Carson Hall, an Illinois graduate assistant since 2019 who played at Georgia from 2015-17. Hudson’s first two seasons with the Bulldogs overlapped with Hall’s time in Athens, Ga.
From there, Hall passed the information to Illinois recruiting director Pat Embleton and then Embleton informed Bielema.
“Before you know it, he’s calling me up,” Hudson said. “He has the right mindset and what it takes. What he said to me spoke volumes.”
Hudson’s parents also talked with Luke Ford’s parents. Ford was a tight end at Georgia in 2018 before transferring to Illinois.
“They had a conversation … about the Illinois culture and just the fan base and the ins and outs of everything,” Hudson said. “They said nothing but good things, and that definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”
Though Hudson is listed as a defensive back on Georgia’s 2020 roster, he’s seen most of his college repetitions on special teams and in the backfield. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Hudson, who said he’s joining the Illini to play safety, has played in 53 college games and has 25 career carries for 97 rushing yards.
“I definitely want to expand on that (special- teams) role as well. I don’t want to give that up, because I think that’s the ticket to the next level,” Hudson said. “I’m open to playing running back, to doing whatever I can to help the team win games.”
When it was noted to Hudson that not everyone embraces a special-teams role in the way he has, the Columbus, Ga., native acknowledged a constant “chip on my shoulder to prove myself.”
“The biggest thing with special teams is you’ve got to be willing to do it and you’ve got to want to do it,” Hudson said. “When it comes time to kick off and you’ve got to go all the way down there and hit someone’s helmet off or get on the front line of (kickoff return) and block a guy that’s running full steam ahead, I think it’s a certain want-to.”
Hudson also recognizes the challenges in matching up against top-tier talent. He went against current standout Georgia receiver George Pickens in practice, a duty Hudson called “pretty uncomfortable.” Hudson also worked alongside running backs Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and D’Andre Swift, receiver Mecole Hardman and linebacker Roquan Smith. All five are now in the NFL.
“Just seeing what it takes to get there,” Hudson said, “I think it’s really just the thing that gives me the leg up in terms of experience.”
Another additional storyline to watch with Hudson: He walked on at Georgia before eventually receiving a scholarship from coach Kirby Smart despite growing up an Auburn fan. It’s a path previously followed by Bielema during his own college career, with Bielema playing at Iowa despite rooting on the Illini when he was a kid.
“I felt that was very similar to myself,” said Hudson, who will be on scholarship at Illinois with one year of eligibility remaining. “It’s definitely something that resonated with me and was something that I could connect with him.”
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