Wide open future at receiver

Badgers' top three receivers are seniors, leaving big shoes to fill, and a golden opportunity for several young players

"You can put all those younger guys in one barrel," said Wisconsin wide receivers coach Henry Mason.

"All those younger guys" refers to the Badgers' future at wide receiver. Wisconsin's top three wideouts—Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr and Brandon White—are all seniors. They have combined for 97 receptions, 1,691 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches this season. All other UW receivers have a total of three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.

The receivers that will contend for playing time in 2006 ooze potential, but it will be an extremely inexperienced group that is, currently, rough around the edges.

Heading into spring, a half dozen receivers will be at the forefront of the competition: current sophomores Luke Swan, Jarvis Minton, Marcus Randle El and Paul Hubbard, junior Jeff Holzbauer and freshman T.J. Theus.

"They are going to have to have a good offseason," Mason said. "We are probably going to have to have some help from the freshmen when they come in."

Coaches cannot discuss high school recruits until the Feb. 1 signing day, but the Badgers have known verbal commitments from three projected receivers: Isaac Anderson, Xavier Harris and Daven Jones.

Heading into the Jan. 2 Capital One Bowl, Swan will likely be the team's No. 4 receiver. He has held that role for much of the latter part of the season. Minton was the No. 4 until suffering a lower leg injury. Randle El entered the season as the fifth receiver, but has had an up-and-down campaign due in part to injuries.

Swan, a 6-foot, 197-pound walk-on from Fennimore, Wis., has been extremely consistent in practices, especially with his route-running.

"The dude who really impresses a lot of us a lot and no one every really talks about is Luke Swan," Brandon White said. "… All of us impressed. The older guys sometimes talk about it, like, ‘Ooh, you see that route Luke ran.'"

"(Swan's) done a nice job," Mason said. "He's put himself in a position to play some for us now. I really like the way he's gone about his business. Hopefully he'll be able to have some success in the bowl game and then have that carry over to the spring for us."

At times in fall camp, Swan's route-running looked as good as any player on UW's roster. Though Mason agreed that Swan was a good route-runner, comparing him to the established seniors raised the receiver coach's eyebrows.

"He's a good route runner, but he hasn't gotten the opportunity to do it in a game," Mason said. "So to really say what kind of route runner he is right now—he's good versus air. He's good against nobody. But we need to see him do it in a game. I think he will be… a good route runner. But it's just unproven at this time."

Unproven is a net that could hold all of these younger receivers. The most established of the bunch is Minton, who was serving UW well, primarily as a run blocker, before his injury.

"He was the fourth guy, but we're not crowning him the king either," Mason said. "He's going to be right in there too." There, of course, is Mason's barrel of receivers. "He's got to do all those same things," Mason continued. "He's probably, potentially he has the most abilities. But potential is what it is."

If not for an offseason water skiing injury, Holzbauer would have been, at worst, UW's No. 6 receiver heading into this season. He only recently returned to practice.

"Jury's still out on him but he's back, he's practicing, he's got a chance to maybe play in this game if they clear him," Mason said. "You'd like to be able to get him out there…

"He was going to be our sixth guy. One man's misery is another guy's opportunity. That's where Swan kind of fit in there and really kind of took it over. If I had to say today, Swan would be ahead of him, today. So Jeff's got a ways to go to get back to where he was."

Physically, the most gifted receivers on UW's roster are probably Hubbard and freshman Jarmal Ruffin. Hubbard, who won the Big Ten title in the long jump as a freshman, is the Badgers' biggest receiver and one of its fastest. He has good hands and strength and is starting to learn the position better and gain confidence.

Ruffin converted from free safety during this, his redshirt season. During bowl practices he has flashed uncanny athleticism and could be UW's most physical young receiver. But Mason stressed that Ruffin is very raw.

"All he's shown me is that he has the ability to catch it," Mason said. "He can catch a football. But he hasn't shown me the ability to be able to decipher coverages… There's a lot of guys that can run and catch, but you've got to run and catch against 11 guys, but I haven't seen that yet. He's a long way from the house."

As this season began, all indications were to expect Minton and Randle El in the 2006 starting lineup. Their injury-dampened years have shifted them to part of the pack. And, more importantly, Randle El was recently arrested and tentatively charged with a violent offense for the second time in less than a year. After being suspended for about a week, Randle El is eligible to return to practice Monday, UW's first day of workouts in Orlando. He will be a part of UW's initial traveling group today.

"It is very unfortunate that incident with Marcus," White said. "I think he's gained a lot of confidence (this year) and he learned a lot.

"…Jarvis is going to be good. He attacks the ball well and everything. He listens.

"Even Paul Hubbard is really starting to come along."

White, though, stressed how well Swan has played in practice.

"And no one really paid him much attention," White said. "So lately you just start watching him, like, ‘Man, Luke all right.' It comes to the stuff you do and then you realize, like, he's going to be all right."

Mason is just focused on his barrel full of receivers. All have ability, all have something to prove.

Said Mason: "What we talk about right now makes absolutely no difference ‘cause it's going to come down to what happens in the spring, who takes the bit this spring.

"You're just not going to be able to tell. They all have their strengths, they all have their weaknesses. It's going to be who works hardest in the offseason and who comes out in the spring and competes and wins a spot. So it will be a fun spring because guys are going to have to win spots."

One young receiver who will not be a part of the competition is redshirt freshman Joe Walker, who Mason said has suffered a career-ending injury. Walker is now on a medically exempt scholarship, which allows him to continue receiving a scholarship while not counting against UW's scholarship limit.

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