Spring Position Preview: Receivers

In addition to losing two receivers to graduation, Wisconsin's two new receivers coaches - Zach Azzanni and Eddie Faulkner - will get the opportunity in the early parts of camp to assess the youth and inexperience at their respective positions with Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen sidelined temporarily with injuries.

MADISON - With a position entering spring devoid of big-game experience, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was surprisingly calm when talking about the raw talent new wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has to work with.

As the seventh-year head coach looks at it, it's a perfect situation for his high-octane coach.

"He's going to get some big jumps out of guys in a short amount of times," Bielema said.

A self described high energy guy, Azzanni says that coaching style comes from growing up working in a no-huddle spread offense. It also helps he's young and intense.

"You're running around like a madman out there," said Azzanni. "That's just the way I've been brought up, too, in the business under some great coaches. You're young, you're energetic, you're high energy and you're intense. I am who I am and I coach how I coach. It's not always puppy dogs and roses out there. It gets a little hard. I coach intense."

That should help a group full of sophomores or younger really take some strides over the 15 spring practices Wisconsin will partake in to prepare for the 2012 season. With redshirt junior Jared Abbrederis - 933 yards, 17.0 yards per catch, 66.6 yards per game, eight touchdowns in 2010 - out for likely the first three weeks of camp, it opens the door for other receivers to get some needed reps.

It also opens the door for redshirt junior Jeff Duckworth to firmly lay his claim for the NO.2 receiver spot. Duckworth's career numbers don't jump out – 18 receptions in 17 games played for 262 yards and one touchdown – but blossomed down the stretch. Leading up to the bowl game, Duckworth caught nine passes for 174 yards and a touchdown in his last five games (34.8 yards per game).

Of course, catching a 36-yard pass on fourth down to set up Wisconsin's game-winning touchdown verse Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game doesn't hurt the confidence much either.

"I really think Duck began to fill that confidence in the huddle and the way he carried himself toward the end of the year," said Bielema. "Obviously that big play in the championship game, I think, boosted that. But all year long, the little things he did during the course of the weeks of preparation as well as on gameday you're like, ‘OK, this guy is going to step forward.'"

But if Abbrederis and Duckworth are the top two receivers, the battle for the third spot is wide open. Heading into fall camp, many thought junior Manasseh Garner was going to be a lock at the position and going to be a nice compliment to Abbrederis and Nick Toon.

The problem is Garner hasn't been healthy enough or consistent enough to be on the field with the first-team offense. Limited after hernia surgery in fall camp, Garner was called out by Bielema on a couple times for needed to take a step forward. In 10 games last season, Garner had only two catches. The other problem Garner has encountered is he has been shifted around a lot during his three seasons at Wisconsin, unable to really hone a position. Spring ball will really show how healthy Garner is and if he's ready to take the next step.

In terms of already making a jump in spring, Bielema said no player made a bigger jump from practice one to practice two than redshirt sophomore Marquis Mason. A former basketball player at Madison East, Mason struggled during his redshirt season and got down mentally when he tore his ACL prior to last season.

The biggest challenge for Mason, according to Bielema, is the mental side of things because Mason's knee is physically ready after being a full year removed from the injury, which he showcased in a recent practice.

"I was watching everybody kind of move around, and all the sudden this big body ran in front of me," recalled Bielema. "And the ball was behind him, and he just reached back with this left hand, caught it in mid-air, did a complete 360 and took off running. Didn't put his other hand on it … He's so freaky athletically."

Brought in primarily to replace David Gilreath in the return game, sophomore Kenzel Doe pushed himself in fall camp to become a better receiver. At 5-8 and 170 pounds, Doe resembles Gilreath in many physical ways and will likely be able to use his limited playing time on the offense to his advantage.

Doe returned a few punts and kickoffs late in games, and might get a few more chances to show off his elusiveness this season. It's hard to pinpoint right now where he fits in with the receivers.

Others to watch: Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Williams played in seven games in 2011 and is still looking for his first catch … Sophomore Fred Willis played four games last season and has good speed, but was hampered with injury problems last season … Redshirt sophomore Chase Hammond missed most of last season with an ankle injury and is looking to make up for lost time … Redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick was on the cusp of playing time last year until a camp injury pushed him to redshirt … Redshirt freshman A.J. Jordan was a four-star receiver in high school, but needed to spend last season building his frame. He's up to 180 pounds and still looking to put on more weight.

Tight Ends

Like the wide receivers, the tight ends are going through a spring with a new position coach – former Badgers running back Eddie Faulkner – and without their top returning target, as redshirt junior Jacob Pedersen is out for likely the first three weeks of camp with a groin injury. A semifinalist for the Mackey Award and a second-team All-Big Ten selection, Pedersen was third on the team with 30 catches and 356 receiving yards and his eight receiving touchdowns on the season tied for fifth-best at UW. Next to Abbrederis, he'll be UW's best pass-catching threat.

Opposite Pedersen, the spot vacated by graduated senior Jake Byrne is wide open, and gives an opportunity for redshirt juniors Brock DeCicco and Brian Wozniak to grab the starting spot. Both are interesting cases since Wisconsin fans have rarely seen them play.

DeCicco nearly picked Wisconsin in the recruiting process before ultimately staying close to home in Pittsburgh. Unhappy under then head coach Todd Graham's system, DeCicco transferred to UW so he could work under Joe Rudolph and thrive in Paul Chryst's system. Bad luck for him, as Chryst and Rudolph are now at Pittsburgh as the head coach and tight end coach, respectively.

DeCicco is a player that thrives in the pro-style offense, so he should feel right at home and will be interesting to see how he approaches his third coaching staff in two seasons.

Wozniak has played in 21 games, all on special teams, and hasn't cracked the first-team offense in his two previous seasons because he rarely makes it though an entire camp injury free. Having suffered from shoulder problems and lower body problems throughout his career, durability is definitely an issue with Wozniak. He certainly has talent, which means this spring will be important for him to be involved and be healthy throughout.

With Wisconsin having three tight ends with two years of eligibility remaining, there doesn't appear too many opportunities for sophomore Sam Arneson and redshirt freshman Austin Maly and Austin Traylor. Arneson played in nine games as a true freshman and is the most experienced of the group. His ability to block and be a reliable passing option gives him an opportunity to see the field if injuries or inconsistencies plague DeCicco or Wozniak.

Maly didn't do much in the passing game in high school and needed to grow physically. He also had some concussion issues in camp that forced him to miss some time. Trayor was a defensive end who also played tight end in high school, leading him spend last season putting on 10 pounds of muscle and focusing solely on his position.

Lastly, Eric Steffes has waited many months for the opportunity to start competing at the University of Wisconsin. An early commit in the 2011 recruiting class, Steffes took a grayshirt after having double shoulder surgery after his hockey season … a move that allowed linebacker Derek Watt to come in and compete right away. Steffes is a very serviceable player – catching 48 passes for 818 yards and 13 touchdowns during his high school career – and could play a number of positions at Wisconsin. It'll be interesting to see where he is with his game, because he's certainly a player that will have an impact on the offense down the road.

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