Fall Camp Preview: Receivers

A group with a lot of unproven youth and talent combined with the experience of receiver Jared Abbrederis and Mackey Award finalist Jacob Pedersen makes the Wisconsin receivers an interesting puzzle heading into 2012.

This is the third in a series of eight previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team's Aug. 6 start of practice.

July 30: Quarterbacks

July 31: Running backs

Aug 1: Receivers

Aug 2: Offensive linemen

Aug. 3: Defensive linemen

Aug. 4: Linebackers

Aug. 5: Defensive backs

Aug. 6: Specialists

Projected starters: Jared Abbrederis (redshirt junior) at receiver; Jacob Pedersen (redshirt junior) at tight end

Key backups: Jeff Duckworth (redshirt junior), Chase Hammond (redshirt sophomore), Isaiah Williams (redshirt sophomore), Marquis Mason (redshirt sophomore), Manasseh Garner (junior) at receiver; Sam Arneson (sophomore), Austin Traylor (redshirt freshman), Brock DeCicco (redshirt junior), Austin Maly (redshirt freshman), Brian Wozniak (redshirt junior) at tight end

The breakdown:

Watching his fellow wide receivers from the sidelines during spring as he recovered from injury, Abbrederis could see some guys who were talented but saw a lot of poor practices, a lot of drops ball and a lot of guys not in the right position to make plays.

"We had a lot to prove," he said.

After what he called a ‘productive summer' of weight lifting, route running and team building, Abbrederis has changed his tune.

"I think we have come a long way this summer getting together running the routes with the quarterbacks and coaching each other up," Abbrederis said. "Guys have come a long way, so I think we'll surprise some people with how much better we have gotten."

Wisconsin hopes Abbrederis is right, especially since the receiver group was one of the weakest positions on the field in the spring, drawing frustrations from first year wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and head coach Bret Bielema.

During one practice, Bielema screamed at his receivers to stop dropping so many passes and for somebody to step up, shouting "You'll play" to motivate them. The question now is who is going to step up next to Abbrederis?

Without Nick Toon and his 64 catches for 926 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns this season, Abbrederis will be the number one guy and has the numbers to back up such a distinction. With the help of Toon drawing attention, Abbrederis caught the second-most passes on the team with 55, tallied a team-best 933 receiving yards and added eight touchdowns.

After being awarded a scholarship in January, Abbrederis knows he is the team leader, but can't change his approach.

"Nick was a big part of our offense, but he's not here anymore. He went to the next level," said Abbrederis. "Nothing has really changed, but you have to lead by example and show guys what to do by doing it yourself. You can't be a hypocrite by being a guy who talks and doesn't do it."

He's also a standup guy when things go wrong. With Wisconsin needing a fourth-quarter score to tie the Rose Bowl at 45, Abbrederis made a 29-yard reception along the left sideline, but got the ball poked out of his left hand before falling to the turf. Instead of the ball rolling out of bounds, the ball came to a dead stop, allowing Oregon to recover.

The Ducks didn't score on the drive, but burned 3 minutes, 50 seconds off the clock that gave Wisconsin only 16 seconds to work with, which turned out to not be enough.

"There was nothing I could do about it after but if I could go back, better ball position with it being high and tight," said Abbrederis, who openly addressed the play following the game. "I can't really dwell on it. I just have to look forward to next season and getting better every day to make it back (there)."

When he looks in the mirror, Abbrederis sees himself as a more confident player that has plenty of experience under his belt. He also sees a guy that is stronger and more physically fit, allowing him to fight out defensive backs and be crisper in his routes.

"I've been working a lot with coach (Zach) Azzanni on being crisper in and out of my breaks, so I think I'll be a lot better at that," said Abbrederis. "He's a great coach that brings a lot of different ideas to our room. He's always got something new for us, so it's always exciting to see what he has. It's been exciting and fun."

Almost as important as Azzanni's work has been with the wide receivers, the decision by offensive coordinator Matt Canada to not tinker with the tight end usage by the Badgers' offense means it could be another outstanding season for Pedersen, arguably the best tight end in the conference.

Pedersen was the team's third-leading receiver last season with 30 catches for 356 yards and eight touchdowns. He is a prototypical Wisconsin tight end - a big body with solid hands that can block in the Badgers' pro-style offense – that averages a touchdown every 3.8 catches.

But while the Badgers only used one of their two tight ends in the passing games (Jake Byrne started all 13 games last season but was primarily a blocker), that doesn't appear to case this season with the emergence of Arneson.

The Badgers have been at their best with two tight ends that are receiving threats (see Travis Beckum and Garrett Graham in 2007 or Graham and Lance Kendricks in 2009), and Arneson certainly looked the part in the spring when Wozniak was slowed again because of injuries.

"I feel like I am night and day from last year with the experience that I got," Arneson said in the spring. "I am so much more confident, and it comes also from being stronger. The confidence I have now in making my blocks, making plays and it's been really big learning the offense."

After playing in 10 games during his true freshman season, Arneson admits his confidence level is sky high after getting that experience last season. That confidence makes the ‘Y' tight end position (a position that usually lines up at the line of scrimmage) one of the deepest positions on the team, as promising young players like Maly and Traylor and Austin Maly, as well as DeCicco, who is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from Pittsburgh, give UW options.

They might be needed options depending on how the receivers progress over the next month. After Abbrederis, Duckworth (15 catches, 230 yards, one touchdown) is the most experienced receiver and is best known for his critical fourth-down catch in the Big Ten Championship game that set up the winning score.

Duckworth is good route runner who is more of a possession receiver, but he also missed time in the spring with an injury. Take out Abbrederis and Duckworth, Wisconsin's other receivers have a combined four receptions for 49 yards and two expected contributors in the fall, Garner and redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick, also were limited in the spring.

But with players out, others emerged, and none took bigger advantage than the 6-5 Hammond. A guy who had three surgeries on his right ankle and was told by doctors at one point that he might not play football again, Hammond emerged in the spring game with four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.

"I am getting more comfortable, but I also know that there is a lot of stuff I need to get corrected," said Hammond following the game. "There's a big opportunity for all of us. A lot of have to step up and mature, get stronger, get faster, learn the plays and make better plays."

This fall will also be big for Mason, who is looking to build his confidence up to 100 percent after missing last season with a torn ACL, and Williams, who dropped two potential touchdown passes in the first half of the spring game and was demoted to the second team at halftime.

With all the youth among the receivers, Abbrederis will be the focal point. Fully healed from the big toe injury that caused him to miss the spring, Abbrederis says his endurance and speed is returning, and the goals of his group are unchanged from the past two seasons.

"I want to see our team win every game, which I think is every guy's goal on every team, but team success brings individual success," said Abbrederis. "I would like to be one of the top receivers in the Big Ten and with my work ethic, that could be accomplished if I keep my head on straight and keep working. We'll need a good team effort this season to hopefully make it back to another Rose Bowl."

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