When he committed to Wisconsin in the 2007 recruiting class, many thought he couldn't equal the receiving numbers of his father, Al (2,103 yards and 131 receptions from 1982-84). With 1,507 receiving yards and 107 receptions through his first three years, Nick Toon can surpass his father's receiving marks this season, albeit with one extra year.
Challenged last year to surpass the marks of an impressive sophomore season (54 catches, 805 yards, 4 TDs) and be an important offensive piece to help lead the Badgers to a conference championship, Toon helped Wisconsin get to that point with 32 catches, 207 yards and three touchdown over the last third of the season, but missed half of the team's first eight games.
And as Wisconsin was preparing for the Rose Bowl, head coach Bret Bielema challenged Toon to have a big game, putting the injuries behind him and end his year with the big performance they both knew he had in him. Toon did have a team-high 46 yards on three catches against TCU in the Rose Bowl, but untimely drops made the day forgettable.
That's all in the past for Toon and the challenge now as No.11 Wisconsin prepares for Thursday's season opener against UNLV is to be the steady playmaker in a young receiving corps.
"I've tried to turn the page," Toon said. "You could make a million different speculations on why (the injuries) happened, but it happened. So, I am going to make the most out of my opportunities this year."
Playing in nine games, Toon never gained more than 72 receiving yards in a game, a product of him being injured in the first half of the season opener and never fully recovering. Toon still remembers the play where the injury occurred last season against UNLV. It was a bubble screen where Toon made the catch, went to the right and got tackled awkwardly out of bounds, as the defender landed on the back of Toon's extended foot.
"It's never something I'll be able to forget but if you play this game long enough, you are bound to have a down year, bound to have injuries and it's kind of the beast of the game," Toon said. "It's a rough game and injuries happen, but you learn from it, move forward and do everything you can to make sure (injuries) don't happen again."
It's the main reason the Badgers coaching staff has been so cautious with Toon, who missed all of spring after offseason foot surgery. When that foot started to get sore in camp, Toon missed a week's worth of practice and had preliminary x-rays that revealed no abnormalities. Since Toon has come back to practice, the senior has shown the staff that he is 100 percent.
"Nick looks like a guy that had a couple days off while everybody else was working," Bielema said Saturday. "He really looked fast and crisp. His feet feel good and I think he feels good. Nick is a confidence guy and I think he is feeling pretty confident with where he's at."
Early in a player's career, Bielema doesn't mind going public with his thoughts about what a younger player needs to do to make an impact in the program. With seniors or with someone that has the respect from his teammates, those public conversations turn into private individual ones.
Although he hasn't been singled out more than any other senior, Toon knows that he has the capabilities and wherewithal to bounce back and end on a high note. He won't reveal his individual goals, but doesn't shy away from saying he wants to have fun.
"I just want to play my best football," Toon said.
And for that, the UW coaches, particularly wide receiver coach DelVaughn Alexander, have stayed on Toon. With Toon possessing the best hands, the best deep-ball threat and the most experience on the team, Alexander has emphases all those points to him throughout fall camp as the team prepares for Thursday.
"You've got to keep coaching him," said Alexander. "I can't let him just go on autopilot and let him rely on his past experiences. There are new things that are going to come up. We were talking earlier about him being distracted by him wanting to be good, wanting to have success or wanting not to get hurt. Those things can be distracting, and we need to make him aware of that."
Even entering his final year, the excitement of a season opener hasn't lost its luster on Toon. Equating playing a night game to being back in high school and playing on Friday nights, Toon feels healthy, stronger and more explosive than he did a season ago. The challenge now is to carry that health and ability all the way to another championship.
"When you lose that (excitement), it's time to hang it up," Toon said. "I love this game. I love playing the game. I am glad to be back here at Wisconsin, playing my senior season and really excited about getting started on Thursday."
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