MADISON – Can Wisconsin recruit elite level receivers?
From 2010-12, Wisconsin got commitments from seven scholarship receivers, all of whom failed to make any kind of tangible impact before graduating, getting injured or simply quitting the program. Without the talent of Jared Abbrederis and Alex Erickson, the passing game would be almost nonexistent, so it’s a fair question to ponder. It’s also a question senior Rob Wheelwright and junior Jazz Peavy hope to answer, as the two are UW’s best hope at balancing out the offense without Erickson on the roster anymore.
After Erickson’s 77 catches for 978 yards, Wheelwright was second in both categories with 32 catches for 416 yards. He also led the team with four touchdown catches, despite missing four games with a leg injury. His return for the bowl game was close to a passing-of-the-torch moment from Erickson to Wheelwright. Erickson had five catches for 54 yards, but Wheelwright’s leaping one-handed 21-yard catch was spectacular and showcased his athleticism. The biggest thing with Wheelwright is his health, as he has yet to make it through a full spring or fall camp the last few years without some kind of issue.
Wheelwright’s injury opened up a door for Peavy, who caught eight of his 20 passes in the four games with Wheelwright on the shelf. His biggest asset is his age, experience that gives him the knowledge of where to be on any play and makes up for him not having top-end speed. He also maximize his catches. In Wisconsin’s 24-7 win against Purdue, Peavy only had two catches but both went for 20+ yards and set up scores.
His breakout game was his five-catch, 88-yard game against Northwestern, a game that included a disallowed touchdown catch after review. Peavy’s sophomore year should make him the No.2 receiver on the roster.
After Peavy and Wheelwright, it’s a wide container of unknowns. Reggie Love had a 45-yard touchdown run off a jet sweet against LSU to start the 2015 season, a play that was thought to jumpstart his career. It hasn’t happened so far, as he has six catches for 70 yards and seven rushed for 38 yards in the last two years without a touchdown. The senior of the group next to Wheelwright, it’s now or never.
Natrell Jamerson, George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders were all part of the same recruiting class in 2014 and came in with considerable hype. So considering the fact that Jamerson has had the biggest impact of the trio – at cornerback and returner – is concerning. Rushing struggled with the coaching change and was buried on the depth chart (17 total yards on three touches last season). Sanders also struggled adjusting to the new concepts but choose to redshirt. Sanders has all the talent in the world – he recorded 65 catches for 1,483 yards and 26 TD receptions plus 463 rushing yards and 6 TDs as a high school senior – but it has yet to translate on the field.
The four walk-ons UW has in camp – sophomores Ricky Finco and Peter Roy and freshmen Henry Houden and Austin Weyenberg – will all get looks by receivers coach Ted Gilmore to try and build some depth.
Moving inside, tight end coach Mickey Turner faces the same lack-of-depth dilemma that Gilmore has. The Badgers feel they have a prototypical tight end in Troy Fumagalli that can make head coach Paul Chryst’s offense operates. Fumgalli elevated into a higher role last season and averaged 2.5 catches and 28.45 yards in his 11 games last season. UW needs him to continue to grow into the No.1 tight end role.
Fifth-year senior Eric Steffes has slowly started to see his workload increase after primarily being on special teams during his tenure. His toughness is his best trait but must develop as a pass catcher.
Kyle Penniston will be going through his second spring after enrolling early and redshirting last season. Of the group that includes sophomore John Damrow and freshmen David Edwards, Mitchell Hertl and Michael Rolfe, Penniston physically looks the most ready to start blocking ends and catching passes.