Spring Football Preview: Receivers

Starting on March 22, Wisconsin football starts its run to the 2012 Rose Bowl with five straight weeks of spring football. In preparation for the camp, Badger Nation breaks down the seven positions over the next seven days. Today, we examine the wide receivers and tight ends.

MADISON – Despite a team-high 46 yards on three catches, Nick Toon stood despondent at his locker. It was a half hour after the Badgers lose the 2011 Rose Bowl, 21-19, against TCU and Toon knew that despite his production, he could have, and should have according to him, done more.

"I should have made those catches," Toon said. "If I want to be the best, I need to make those catches."

Toon simply shook his head over his dropped touchdown catch in the first quarter. When he competed in fall camp, there was no catch that Toon couldn't make, setting the tone for what many thought would be a landmark junior season. In the end, that was a play that ended up costing the Badgers a big four points.

Finishing second on the team in receptions (36), receiving yards (459) and touchdowns (3), Toon viewed last season as nothing more than an individual disappointment, one that never really got on track.

After being the standout performer in fall camp, a painful turf toe injury suffered in the opener at UNLV cost him the next three conference games and Toon never found his footing.

Playing in eight games, Toon never went higher than 72 receiving yards, but his final four games showed the potential is starting to return. Over the last third of the season, Wisconsin averaged 58.8 points per game, and Toon had 32 catches, 207 yards and all three of his touchdown catches.

"It's part of the game, and you have to learn how to deal with it," Toon said of the injury.

The injury turned out to be a hidden benefit for Wisconsin. Not only did the Badgers survive without his production, his injuries, wanting to finish his degree and the personal dissatisfaction with his performance was the driving force in Toon coming back this season. With the Badgers losing three senior wide receivers and Mackey Award finalists, Toon will be the unquestioned No.1 receiver on an offense that averaged 43.3 points per game during the regular season.

"I think Nick does a really good job preparing and he's got to help himself by caring that over into games," UW receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander. "He needs to relax and let the game to come to him, which happens by understanding the defense a little better, film study and time.

"Although he hasn't had the best year statistically as he would have liked, he's really grown. It's only a matter of time that he puts it together."

Just like Toon established himself last fall camp as the No.1 threat, redshirt sophomore Jared Abbrederis burst on to the scene last spring as a guy that can play ball. A first-team all-state quarterback and member of WIAA Division IV state championship team as a senior, Abbrederis walked on to Wisconsin, converted to wide receiver and made a big impact with Toon and senior David Gilreath were out of the lineup with injuries.

"It is not an easy transition," Alexander said. "It is more mental. He was always saying he is going to get this done and he has done that since he came over to wide receiver."

In the end, Abbrederis tied for second on the team in TD receptions, fourth on the team in receiving yards and fifth in receptions, including a career-long 74-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against Indiana.

"I don't think guys were too much surprised because of the way he has gotten in here. The work ethic that he has and the attention to detail … it paid off," senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said of Abbrederis last fall. "That is what all those reps are for, building a comfort level with everyone. In the summer he was out here more than anyone else, just throwing and catching. His attention to detail really made a difference and raised the confidence level everyone else had in what he was doing."

While those two have proven their worth, this spring will be key for a number of receivers looking to jump up the depth chart.

The player that had the most experience on the field last year was Manasseh Garner, although it wasn't because he was running routes. UW Coach Bret Bielema overruled his coaching staff and put Garner and his natural speed on the defensive side of the ball, where he played in 10 games and registered 10 tackles.

Like any first year player, Garner spent the majority of his freshman season adjusting to the mental aspect of the game and amount of free time that comes with being a college freshman. Still, Garner said in December that he's added plenty of strength and muscle still he first stepped on campus, which bodes well for him stepping into the rotation and out muscling the cornerbacks for the football.

"His toughness is the difference between him and the other guys that have been playing receiver for a longer time," Alexander said. "It's all about competition. If he goes in because he's tough, physical and aggressive, it's going to move one of the older guys off the field if they aren't going to be that."

This spring will be big for redshirt sophomore Jeff Duckworth, the only remaining receiver from the 2009 recruiting class. Duckworth was limited throughout his freshman year after shoulder surgery and played sparingly last season, catching three passes for 32 yards in five contests last season.

"I think I am very consistent, I run very good routes, I am disciplined, a good leader and that I am learning the offense real well," Duckworth said last fall camp.

The Badgers also have depth with their youth, as redshirt freshmen Isaiah Williams, Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond are all looking to be involved in their first season on the field. At 6-foot-1, Williams is a big body that made plenty of plays in high school, catching 142 passes for 1,959 yards and 48 touchdowns in his career.

Mason is a basketball standout turned raw football talent, who was offered early by Wisconsin two springs ago because of the pure athleticism he brings to the table. Mason is still in the adjustment phase of the playbook and the intricacies of football, which means this spring will be vital for him to take steps forward.

Hammond added 15 pounds to his frame from July until December and started learning the value of watching film and learning from it.

"That in itself is difficult," Hammond said in December. "Everyone physically, we wouldn't be here if we weren't good enough to be here physically. Mentally, when you don't have the mental part down, it's hard to do the physical part because you have to know what you are going to do before you do it."

Although the Badgers lose Gilreath, who was dynamic in the return game, end-around game and as the team's No.3 receiver, Wisconsin may have found his replacement in true freshman Kenzel Doe.

Doe, the only freshmen of the 2011 recruiting class to enroll early is being called a freak athlete by Bielema, and also one of the most gifted freshmen to enroll early in his tenure. In senior season, Doe caught 54 passes for 980 yards and 12 touchdowns, rushed 22 times for 224 yards and five touchdowns and passed for 124 yards and one touchdown on 6-of-10 passing. The coaching staff told Doe they want him to earn the starting returner's job, and this spring will be a key step towards that.

This spring will also be important for the coaching staff to make him multidimensional and not look at him as a return specialist.

"I think it's the same situation and a same as a lot of other guys that have had sons come and play here," Alexander said. "You just have to be careful of lumping that guy in a stereotyping him as ‘David Gilreath.' He's his own talent and his own person … but he is pretty close to David."

Tight ends

It is not quite clear yet who will be the next great Wisconsin tight end.

But you can be sure there will be one.

With Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks as the last four starting tight ends to graduate from Wisconsin, history would suggest another playmaking weapon is in the pipeline.

The only question now is who?

Spring practice will give the contenders — Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak, Jake Byrne and Sherard Cadogan — a chance to separate themselves. Even though the former stars will be practicing their talents in the NFL, the lessons they have imparted will be present in spring camp.

"A lot of it came down to technique and doing the little things that you don't see," said Byrne, saying what he observed from his two predecessors. "They were great receivers in the pass game, and were always showing me the things to watch in coverage. After awhile, you can see things slow down for them."

All four tight ends bring a different strength to the group.

Weighing in at 233 pounds as a six-foot-four specimen his true freshman year, Cadogan presents the highest ceiling of the Badgers.

He will almost certainly have put on weight this winter, and as his understanding of the offense increases, his playmaking impact will increase. With greater pure athleticism than any other tight end, Cadogan will have a chance to seize playing time with a strong showing in spring.

"All those upperclassmen tight ends have helped me and taught me a lot," Cadogan said. "They've helped me with the different techniques and footworks, because they are different than high school. The big thing is getting stronger at the mental aspect of the game. They've taught me that football is 90 percent mental and if I build on that, everything else will come.

"It's exciting being with these guys and to be able to contribute on a great team like this, it's an honor. I feel like if I have a chance to play with these guys, it's the biggest accomplish I've ever had."

The most ready and battle tested is Pedersen. The redshirt freshman flashed last season as the No. 2 tight end behind Kendricks, hauling in two touchdowns and averaging 16.5 yards per reception. He will be given a chance early to establish himself as the No. 1 pass catcher.

For the two tight end sets offensive coordinator Paul Chryst loves to utilize, Wozniak presents the best run blocking option.

The redshirt freshman put on 30 pounds of muscle last winter to weigh in at 255 pounds. Now Wozniak will just have to stay healthy and get used to running with the added weight.

At 250, I feel a lot stronger at the point of attack on the block," Wozniak said. "When I am running, I feel the same, almost more explosive because I have that extra twitch in my muscle. When it comes to blocking, I feel that much stronger and confident."

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