MADISON – When asked about junior receiver George Rushing at the onset of spring game, second-year wide receiver coach Ted Gilmore could not have given a more honest evaluation.
“George is still take two steps forward and two steps back,” he said at the time. “That’s been his issue and that’s what we got to fix. That’s what I got to fix. I’ve got to get him there. I share responsibility in his development.”
Over the last week, it’s evident that Rushing is getting closer to a player Wisconsin can rely on come the 2016 season.
During Thursday’s morning practice, the 11th of Wisconsin’s 15 spring workouts, Rushing was a big focal point of quarterbacks Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston. He had four catches, including a 64-yard touchdown when he beat cornerback Titus Booker in one-on-one coverage, and had a 64-yard touchdown off a jet sweep that was well blocked by the left side of the line.
Coming off a scrimmage last Saturday where he unofficially caught eight passes for 134 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown on a corner-fade route, Rushing has started to limit the backpedaling.
“I feel like each day, whether it’s pass game or run game, I’ve progressed in a way,” Rushing said. “I feel like I have got better mentally and just go out there and playing the way I know how to play. It’s about staying consistent.”
The majority of the first-team reps throughout spring have gone to senior Rob Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy, but Rushing has been consistently working his way up the ladder in competition with senior Reggie Love. It’s the exact opposite of his first two seasons. Choosing not to redshirt, Rushing has played in 25 career games but has only seven rushes for 40 yards and six catches for 72 yards.
“I feel like I got a lot of mental reps,” Rushing said of his last two years. “Physically I maybe should have redshirted one of those years, but either way I learned a lot and had a chance to learn a lot from Alex Erickson and past receivers. At the end of the day it’s got me to where I am now and has helped me progress as a player just from the game-time experience, seeing other players play and going against different teams every week.”
Subscribing to the theory that there’s always things to work on and clean up, Rushing’s biggest tasks now are becoming consistent with the depth on his routes and becoming more physical in the run blocking game.
If he achieves that, he’ll be a part of a group which believes it can cover the 77 catches Erickson had last season.
“When I step on the field, I just go out there and compete and try to do my best so I can find my way on the field,” Rushing said. “Like Coach Chryst said, just try to get one percent better each day, whether that’s mentally, physically, run game or pass game. I set a goal for myself each day and try to go out and achieve that goal.”
After a rough Tuesday in which he threw four interceptions, Houston delivered one of his better practices of the spring by going 11-for-16 in team drills and 2-for-6 in red-zone drills. On target from the start, hitting his first five passes, Houston’s first throw was a 64-yard touchdown to Wheelwright, who out raced two defenders and had Houston’s pass drop perfectly into his arms.
Houston also hit Peavy for 20 and 15 yards, the latter of which was arced perfectly to get over a leaping Sojourn Shelton. He also completed the 64-yard touchdown to Rushing, delivered throws over the middle that his receivers hung on to and hit tailbacks in the flat.
Just as important, Houston committed no turnovers and all of his incompletions were missed in the correct spot, not allowing any defenders to make a play on the ball.
Hornibrook also had a decent day, finishing 16-for-28 in team drills and 2-for-8 in red-zone skele. While he overthrew four passes and underthrew two others, Hornibrook utilized tailbacks Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale in the flat, hit tight end Troy Fumagalli and Rushing over the middle and connected with Peter Roy for a 64-yard touchdown.
While Hornibrook didn’t throw an interception in team drills, defensive end Conor Sheehy knocked the ball out of his hands for a forced fumble and safeties Keelon Brookins and Arrington Farrar had pass breakups. Hornibrook also threw two interceptions in the red zone, getting picked off by inside linebacker T.J. Edwards and Farrar.
Both quarterbacks relied heavily on their tight ends in the passing game. Of the 31 completions in practice, 10 went to tight ends Fumgalli, David Edwards and Kyle Penniston. Fumagalli was the busiest, catching three red zone passes, three from Hornibrook in team drills and one from Houston. While Fumagalli had a fair share of open passes, he managed to haul in some contested throws over the middle and even broke up a Chris Orr interception off a deflection inside the 10-yard line.
From the Infirmary
Limited Thursday – CB Titus Booker (right thigh), OLB Jake Whalen (right thigh)
Out Thursday – S D’Cota Dixon (left groin), OL Ben Hemer (head), WR Henry Houden (right thigh), WR Reggie Love (illness), RB Mark Saari (right hand), WR Krenwick Sanders (left thigh), OL Logan Schmidt (left knee), TE Eric Steffes (right groin)
Out for Spring – QB Kare Lyles (left hip), DE Zander Neuville (right shoulder), TE Michael Rolfe (right knee), OL Dan Voltz (right knee)
Extra Points: With temperatures finally on the rise, Wisconsin practiced outside in half pads for the first time since March 31 … Hornibrook, Houston and graduate assistant/former UW quarterback Jon Budmayr took part in a skills competition after practice, tasked to throw the ball through a moving target and into a trash can in the corner of the end zone. Hornibrook was the only one to hit the targets, nailing three of them … UW returns to the practice field Saturday for its 12th spring practice.