MADISON - With the departure of Alex Erickson, the Wisconsin offense will have to replace 77 catches, a leading receiver for the last two years and, most importantly, a consistent target for quarterbacks heading into the 2016.
Rob Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy appear to have the inside edge for the starting receiver spots, but the slot for a third reliable target is ripe for the picking and has been since the beginning of the year.
Junior George Rushing may have answered the call. With his productive spring effort that culminated in a two-touchdown performance on Saturday, the versatile receiver continued the momentum to place himself in position to contribute for the 2016 season.
"George has worked this spring,” head coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “I think that this day, he had a couple noticeable plays, but I think the last three of four he probably had his best practices. He finished the spring on a higher note and that has a chance to get him some confidence going into the summer."
The Florida native caught a step on the defense early in the hour-plus long scrimmage on the second offensive series. Southpaw Alex Hornibrook, who led the No. 2 offense against the second-team defense on that drive, ended a 70-yard drive by launching a 46-yard pass that Rushing caught past cornerback Natrell Jamerson in the end zone.
Later in the game Rushing would again find daylight into the end zone, engulfing a pass from the redshirt freshman on a crossing pattern. After a diving attempt by cornerback Derrick Tindal, Rushing would take it 43 yards for another offensive score. If not for an overthrow from would-be senior Bart Houston, Rushing - who had another step on his defender - could have are a third huge gain for the offense.
He ended the day with those two receptions for 89 yards and equated his big day to a simple “mathematical” equation given by wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore: time + space = completion.
“When you’re in the right place and you’re right where the quarterback thinks you’re going to be, he’s going to throw it to that spot,” Rushing said. “You just have to go out and make a play.”
Throughout the camp, Rushing’s worked on something each day - those “small things” - to become what he hopes to be a complete receiver. Whether it’s working on the depth of his route running, refining his blocking techniques or finishing plays, Rushing set his sights on always improving on aspects of his game.
Erickson gave Rushing a hint of advice his sophomore year that’s stuck with him heading into these past 15 practices -- go out on the field each practice with a goal in mind.
“Each day I set one goal and just go out there and try to achieve that one goal,” Rushing acknowledged. “No matter what I did that practice, I improved in that one area.”
His progression has been noticed by those around him, including the quarterbacks.
“He’s a guy, that he’s always been an athletic freak,” Hornibrook said, who finished 4-of-8 for 138 yards and the two touchdown strikes to Rushing. “He’s one of the fastest guys on the team, so I think for him a lot of development came mentally, just knowing how far exactly to break off his routes, just being aware of the coverage. I think he’s improved a lot there.”
With Love out Saturday, Rushing showcased the explosiveness he’s displayed since his prep days at Cardinal Gibbons High in Miramar, Fla. After catching only one pass last season in 11 games in his first year under Chryst, Rushing believes the work be puts in this summer could catapult him up the ranks heading into the fall.
“Just continue what I’ve been doing -- continue to be the best me,” Rushing said. “Lift weights as best I can, run as best I can. Work on learning coverages and try to be a complete receiver.”