There's hope on the horizon though, as the young talent mixed with some experience could have the makings of an unforeseen strength. The Badgers averaged 199.5 yards through the air last season, a number that will probably increase with Wilson under center and a healthy Toon split out. Toon has no reason not to be healthy after missing all of spring ball after corrective foot surgery.
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. 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 said. "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, which showed with his 20 catches for 289 yards (14.5 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
"Last year, I got a lot of experience playing and learning from the older guys," Abbrederis said. "It was really beneficial in the spring because they had taught me some things to help me step up as a leader."
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."
With Toon out in the spring, the Badgers should feel confident in the athleticism of Manasseh Garner as the team's No.3 receiver. Originally recruited to Wisconsin as an H-back, Garner's abilities made UW coach Bielema anxious to move him to defensive end and bring some speed off the end. Now with UW have depth at defensive end and lacking it at wide receiver, Garner has been moved back to the offensive side of the ball with success.
Garner was a talented two-way player at Brashear (PA) High, catching 83 passes for 1,267 yards and 21 touchdowns and having 149 tackles, 10 sacks and four interceptions in his career. After not catching a pass last season, Garner caught four passes for 57 yards at the spring game and Bielema said he'll be used as both a receiver and a tight end in the fall.
"He's really excels and continues to grow all spring," Bielema said. "Today was a culmination of what we've seen through the other 14 practices. Manasseh is a very talented football player and gifted athletically."
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. Doe will enter the fall with his eyes not only on Gilreath's returning role, but his receiver role, as well.
"I really feel like I have the opportunity," Doe said. "If I keep working hard, keep catching the ball, being consistent each practice, I feel like I have a real good chance being in the rotation in the fall."
Behind that group of four, the Badgers, even with Madison native Marquis Mason missing this upcoming season with an ACL tear, have a variety of young playmakers that will be fighting for playing time. 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, has OK size, but a knack for getting open. 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, while Hammond added 15 pounds to his frame from July until December and started learning the value of watching film and learning from it.
"A lot of guys stepped up and were able to get some experience," Abbrederis said. "It only helps us in the fall because guys got more playing time in the spring. We have a lot of growing to do, but Williams really played well all spring and made a lot of plays. We just have to be consistent in our group catching balls and running the right routes."
As far as whom the next great Wisconsin tight end is going to be, the answer is not quite clear, but you can be sure there will be one. The success of Wisconsin's offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's offense hinges on the tight end in the blocking and passing game. Lance Kendricks was the ultimate in both, as his 43 catches, 663 yards and five touchdowns were all the best on the team. After spring camp, it looks like Wisconsin will utilize two such tight ends.
Senior Jake Byrne has been in the offense the longest, as the Arkansas native completed his fifth spring camp. He's yet to make a dent in the passing game, but his diligent work in the running game hasn't gone unnoticed by the UW coaching staff. But while Byrne will be the force up front, sophomore Jacob Pedersen will be the strength in the secondary. Pedersen played in all 13 games last season and manage to catch eight passes (16.5 yards per receptions) for two touchdowns while playing second fiddle to Kendricks.
It almost didn't happen for Pedersen. Unhappy with his play and homesick during his first season, Pedersen was ready to chose a different career path – he was planning on dropping out of school to play baseball and become a mortician - until the coaches put him on scout team to help the Badgers prepare for their rivalry game against Minnesota. It was a move that kept the promising tight end on the roster, an opportunity for him to start producing and giving Wisconsin a legitimate threat this fall.
"Lance is a really good player and to be able to watch them, I just tried to take their characteristics and apply them to my own game," Pedersen said. "I was nervous as heck for my first catch but after you start getting that, the game starts to slow down and watching film, everything starts to slow down. You see yourself start to make plays, your confidence begins to grow."
For the two tight end sets Chryst loves to utilize, Byrne and Pedersen appear to be a solid one-two punch for Wisconsin.
Don't count out Brian Wozniak or Sherard Cadogan just yet though. If it wasn't for injuries, Wozniak would have already been on the field and at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Cadogan is a specimen with a high ceiling that will be a playmaker down the road.
"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."