Building a Better Receiver

With a bunch of young wide receivers, first year coach Zach Azzanni isn't looking for the rah-rah Tim Tebow player from his receivers group. Heading into today's scrimmage, he's simply looking for some consistency and some playmakers.

MADISON - After his wife Julia gave birth to baby number three on March 23, Zach Azzanni said he would have to handle a house full of four girls ‘very carefully.' In terms of handling a group full of infant wide receivers, Wisconsin's first year receivers coach will have to handle that situation just as delicately.

With starting wide receiver Jared Abbrederis limited this spring combined with having no seniors and little experience in the group, Azzanni is literally working with a fresh slate of young, raw, talented receivers that will be needed to expedite UW's passing attack.

Being hired from Western Kentucky where he was the offensive coordinator and the receivers coach, Azzanni talks to Badger Nation about some of the players in his group and the expectations for his group.

If you could use one word to describe your receivers group, what would it be?

Azzanni: Young. They're young, they're tired, but they are doing well. We're up and down and we just have to find some consistency out there.

You knew what you were getting into what you took this job, that you had one receiver with a proven track record and all the rest were a group of players that were virtually unproven. Through four weeks, do you have idea where this group can go?

Azzanni: I am still feeling it out, but every day you get more of an impression of a certain guy. There are a lot of things to see. I know who can go out there and make a couple plays now and again, but we have to identify who are playmakers are. We have to find out who can scare the defense a little bit. We've got to find out who can be consistent, line up the right way, block the same way every snap, run the same routes exactly the same way … and right now we are up and down.

There are a lot of reasons for that – inexperience, new coach, never played, new verbage. There are a lot of things going on there that add to that. We're starting to get to the point where people are starting to separate themselves.

What do you like about Marquis Mason, who says you have been a master motivator to him?

Azzanni: I am hard on Marquis because I expect a lot out of him. I expect a lot out of all my guys, but there is a lot of potential there with Marquis. He's got a lot of work to do, but he comes back to work every day. He's made some big catches in the scrimmage, and he's starting to play hard. He didn't play hard the first three or four practices. Now he's starting to understand what play hard means. He doesn't get it yet. I don't think a lot of my guys get what playing really hard means, but they are starting to understand that and we're starting to see the fruits of their labor.

What do you like about Isaiah Williams?

Azzanni: I like Ike. He's been up and down a little bit, but Ike is making some plays, and I like that about him. He's got an edge about him on the field. I like guys that have an edge to them on the field. I am trying to fill the bully. Ike will go after guys on the perimeter blocking and he'll block the way I want him to block. Does he already go the right way and do the right thing? No not yet, but he will. He's got that certain swag that I am looking for out there. He's coming along good.

Do you need to instill some of that swagger into Chase Hammond, or does he have it?

Azzanni: No, actually, when he goes on the grass he gets after players a little bit. I thought the same thing before I coached him. I was a little bit worried that he didn't have a hard edge to him. He actually does and it's good to see. He needs to keep doing and proving himself. He's trying to play with the demeanor and hard edge that I am coaching. Just because he's polite on the field doesn't mean he doesn't have a hard edge on the field. He's getting there.

Are you getting Jeff Duckworth to talk a little louder to since he is one of the veterans of the group as a redshirt junior?

Azzanni: No, not yet. You can't push guys into being something they are not. At the same time, he has to pick up his level of play to be an example. He has to lead by example. I have to be able to say, ‘Go out and do it like Jeff Duckworth does it.' I don't need a ‘rah rah' guy but I need a guy when it's third-and-8 to go over, tap some guys on the butt and tell them ‘let's go.' That's all I need. I don't need Tim Tebow. I just need him to go out and play really hard all the time so guys can look at him as an example.

Do you think A.J. Jordan is in the plans for you this year or down the road?

Azzanni: Great question. Gosh, I hope this year, because he is what you are looking for as far as guys who can run. Everywhere I have been and every coach I have coached for has wanted to recruit speed. We need some guys who can run and he can run for us, but he's young. God has blessed him with some talent, he's learning the position, learning what college football is all about and he's gained 20 pounds in the offseason. He's learning every day, but he's a guy you are looking for in terms of what he brings to the table. Hopefully he figures in this year. I am not figuring anybody out right now, because there are so many guys in that pot right now.

You are still looking for more consistency from this group, but has anyone exceeded your expectations of what you had at the start of spring?

Azzanni: Not really, because I have pretty high expectations. Everyone is still milling around in the middle.

How did you evaluate your scrimmage with your high expectations with the way they blocked, ran their routes and caught the ball when the opportunity presented itself?

Azzanni: I think it was below average, but that's because I expect a lot. I saw some flashes of some things that I am coaching. That's always a great thing. It might not have been perfect yet, but that's why it's called practice. They are practicing their breaks, they are practicing their release point and different things that I am teaching. If the defense is in a certain coverage, you run your route like this. I saw some flashes of that. It wasn't perfect, but I saw them thinking about how to do it. If they keep going out there doing old habits, you can't ever work on those new things. I saw some of that, which is good.

I started seeing guys get after people on the perimeter, which is good and I like that. We're going to get after people as much as we can, we're going to be relentless on the perimeter blocking and I saw some guys really trying to be physical and really do what I ask them to do, which is play with a hard edge.

Lastly, how much do you enjoy working with a graduate assistant like Luke Swan, who played the position successfully here?

Azzanni: Luke is great knowledge for us having been around the program. He understands what it is to play receiver at Wisconsin. He's learned how to be a player and he's learned how to be a coach. His knowledge allows guys to go up and ask him about a certain technique, which makes him always good to have around.

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