by Maxwell Brusky
Remember Bielema barking to his wide receivers during fall camp last year, “Step up, you’ll play!!”? Well, UW goes into this fall camp with just about the same situation as last year – don’t know if anyone will hear Gary Andersen call out his receivers like Bielema did, but I’m guessing he’s probably thinking the same thing.
As this piece goes out, the daily training camp reports mention yet another player from way beyond the two-deep who flashes and gives some hope that all-star former walk-on Jared Abbrederis will get a little relief from the extra coverage he usually draws. This past week it was redshirt freshman Alex Erickson, a converted quarterback out of Darlington, Wisconsin. It will likely be someone else tomorrow. This is the state of the receivers group for UW, a team coming off three league titles and three BCS bowls in a row.
Last season, UW’s passed for just under 157 yards/game, good for 111th in the FBS. While there were several plausible explanations for this paltry showing – a very slow start by the offensive line and quarterback play that was poor to discombobulated (Danny O’Brien) to inexperienced (redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who improved weekly until he was effectively lost for the season with a broken collarbone after a solid first half against Michigan State) to rusty or somewhat pedestrian (fifth year, now sixth year, senior Curt Phillips) – the lack of production at wide receiver outside of Abbrederis has to be a prime area of focus.
Since the cast of characters for 2013 is largely the same, more detail from 2012 is instructive. Abbrederis, despite missing time with a concussion and consistently drawing heightened attention from opposing defenses, turned in good numbers: 49 catches for 837 yards. After him, the drop was precipitous. The de facto no. 2 WR was redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick; he caught 17 passes for 196 yards and didn’t have a touchdown reception until just before halftime in the Rose Bowl. The main third option was Kenzel Doe, a lightly recruited waterbug/slot receiver/return specialist, who played such small-time ball before college that his teams never lost a game in his life before coming to UW; he brought in 16 catches for 121 yards.
Once you’re past the top three, it got real sketchy. There was Jeff Duckworth, who went from 2011 Big Ten title game hero to Bielema’s “doghouse” in 2012, had a team-high 7 receptions for 55 yards in the representative loss at Oregon State, but this accounted for about one-sixth of his total production in his three years in the program (he went to catch just two more passes last season). Then there’s some names you might remember seeing on the field at one time or another – A.J. Jordan, Reggie Love and Chase Hammond (memorable for being injured and dropping several passes at key times) – and then roster fillers that didn't see the field at all (I thought Connor Cummins stood out in camp last year? Isn’t Lance Baretz supposed to be super-fast?).
Before 2012, the corps also had three leave the program: Manasseh Garner, who saw time in 2011 as the No. 3 WR, but opted to return home to Pitt(sburgh) to join the offense of Paul Chryst and Joe Rudolph; Fred Willis, who saw the field, mostly on special teams, as a true freshman in 2011; and my guy Drew McAdams, a walk-on from Madison East and the “next Abby,” to me anyway. Rounding out the crew was former prospect Marquis Mason, a leaper also out of Madison East who’s now torn an ACL in the pre-season two years in a row.
Bielema got and Andersen retained two WR commitments for 2013, Rob Wheelwright, a high three-star out of Ohio with size, athleticism and a famous last name, and Jazz Peavy, a mid three-star out of Kenosha Tremper, but who recently injured his hamstring off the field at a high school all-star game. Badger watchers are almost counting on these guys to make an impact.
But why should we be counting on these guys to make an impact as true freshman? Not only are they true freshman, they’re not elite prospects. They’re definitely solid with good upside, but they’re not elite. Abbrederis is a senior and will be gone after the season, and while Fredrick and Doe look to be unquestionably adequate in their spots and have eligibility remaining after 2013, there’s no receiver on the roster that moves the buzz meter outside of these two true freshmen. Freshmen. Freshmen who are not elite prospects.
Consider this: Wheelwright is the highest-rated WR prospect since Bielema flipped the eventually doomed Kraig Appleton from Illinois for 2009, and brought in the year before Nick Toon, for whose services Wisconsin’s bid had a clear leg up. Prior to Toon, Lance Kendricks came into the program as a four-star wide receiver, only to wind up illustrating Wisconsin’s much better luck with recruiting tight ends. It’s history now, but the last major receiver recruit before Kendricks was actually Lee Evans. Evans aside, there’s a whole bunch of two-stars and low/mid three-stars, but very little in the way of highly touted high school receivers.
Wisconsin, as it’s known for doing, has done a fine job of developing many of the scholarship recruits, which doesn’t include walk-ons like Abbrederis or, from an earlier time, the “Fennimore Flash” Luke Swan, into solid college receivers, but as a position group, the receiver recruits have been a little underwhelming coming into the program. What’s left now is a little appalling for a program like Wisconsin’s.
Even though it wouldn’t appear that receivers are not making it into starting roles (or garnering all-league recognition) at a rate different than any other position group (except maybe tight ends, but there isn’t nearly as many of those), it’s worthwhile to consider the sheer number of scholarship recruits that didn’t make it to that level. In fact, that’s precisely what the program is seeing right now with its receivers. While Appleton didn’t realize his perceived potential due to issues off the field (one of the few at any position for UW), most of the others in recent times have been wash outs largely by dint of their on-field ineptitude.
In recent times, it’s difficult to lay the blame on development or ineffective coaching – Abbrederis obviously has talent, but he did go from walk-on scout team spread-option quarterback to All-Big Ten first team. The receivers of 2011 and 2010, which did include Toon admittedly, were also productive. It’s also difficult to point to the recent staff turnover for the lack of production: DelVaughn Alexander, who replaced the estimable and venerated Henry Mason prior to the 2007 season, only left after the 2011 season, and Chryst was the offensive coordinator from 2005 through 2011. The stability of the offensive staff prior to 2012, however, might point in another direction - recruiting.
While it’s true that other members of the coaching staff are involved with recruiting particular players to the program, the recruiting coordinator and the prime passing game coaches were the same for several years prior to 2012; in addition to Alexander as receivers coach, UW’s recruiting coordinator from 2009-2011 was Rudolph, who was also the TE coach.
Were the majority of receivers presently on the team simply mis-evaluated when they were brought in? Were they mis-evaluated at a worse rate than the typical recruiting cycle, or the typical position group? Obviously, UW didn’t have a problem recruiting in general in recent times – three league titles in the last three years tells you that – but the lack of wide receiver depth in 2012 and again in 2013 is at least little jarring when taken in isolation and suggests answers in the affirmative to these questions –again, the top guy is a former walk on.
The underperforming UW teams of 2007 and 2008 had similar depth issues at wide receiver, so a down cycle at receiver has happened before, and not too long ago. In 2007, Paul Hubbard was lost until the Outback Bowl in Game 2 at UNLV (and UW sputtered without him in that game) and then Swan was lost for the season in Game 6 at Illinois; UW was down to true freshmen David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson for most of the schedule, which contributed to a slack offense.
In 2008, freshmen Toon and Isaac Anderson bolstered the sophomores, but the offense went from slack to sluggish through most of the schedule (the quarterback play in 2008, with Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer, was far below Tyler Donovan’s 2007, to be sure) – the games against Marshall, Fresno State and especially Michigan (4 first-half field goals and a second-half shut down) were downright excruciating.
By 2010, the wide receiver group was strong with Gilreath and Anderson as seniors and junior Toon beginning to fulfill his promise as a prospect. In 2011, Toon was supplemented by a surging Abbrederis and the two had Russell Wilson throwing them passes; Duckworth even started to look like a solid no. 3 with hopes that he would develop into something more – of course, this hasn’t happened.
We already know what happened in 2012, where most of the 2010, 2011, 2012 wide receiver recruits floundered even as back-ups. In 2013, UW looks to be in almost the same position except for those two freshmen – will they be more like Kyle Jefferson, who admittedly absorbed season-altering, monster hits in both 2007 (Michigan State) and 2008 (Minnesota), or more like Nick Toon, who garnered all-league honors and was eventually drafted in the 4th Round in 2012? Will someone else, an A.J. Jordan or a Reggie Love, who look to have talent, or an Alex Erickson, who hardly anyone outside of football junkies and beat reporters has even heard of, “step up” and play?
Andersen is on record as looking to re-energize UW’s passing game, especially as it involved deep passes – who wouldn’t? Because he’s new and seems to be in such control, maybe there’s a tendency to believe him a little more heartily. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig also has a track record for solid passing games (which need good wide receivers, certainly). There are presently no known wide receiver commits for 2014, but if you follow the recruiting services, UW hasn’t been bashful about pursuing elite prospects at the position.
If UW can maintain the national buzz it’s generated over the last three years, and Andersen’s first, in-charge recruiting class continues to assemble at the pace it has been, perhaps there will be another four-star brought into the program to be a future Biletnikoff finalist like Evans. If that doesn’t pan out though, I’d be more than happy with a few Paul Hubbards and David Gilreaths at least.