Walking on to opportunity

Wide receiver Richard Kirtley has jumped onto the scene this spring for the Badgers

MADISON — If not for football, Richard Kirtley says he would probably be attending the University of Florida, where it is warm.

The Chicago native, though, yearned for an opportunity to play Division I college football. So after he was accepted to the University of Wisconsin during his senior year at Mt. Carmel High School, Kirtley called Badger wide receivers coach Henry Mason to see if he could walk-on. Kirtley then sent Wisconsin some highlight footage and letters of recommendation.

"They pretty much told me that we think you are someone that can contribute on our team," Kirtley said. "Pretty much gave me the opportunity to walk on, which is really all that I had wanted to do."

If Wisconsin had turned him down, Kirtley's second choice was Division III UW-Platteville — or heading for warm weather and parting ways with football.

The Badgers are quite fortunate that Kirtley made that phone call to Mason.

In his first spring season at UW, the 6-foot-2, 184-pound redshirt freshman has probably been the Badgers' most pleasant surprise. A game-breaking athlete he is not, but Kirtley is a tough player with very good hands. He has emerged as one of the Badgers' top four receivers this spring.

"All I wanted was just an opportunity," Kirtley said. "For the most part I've been able to make the best of my opportunity. I still need to work on some consistency on some things. But I definitely have an opportunity."

He has that right. The Badgers are trying to find some trustworthy receivers with the departure of 2005 seniors Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr and Brandon White. After Jarvis Minton, an early favorite to start in 2006, went down with an injury this spring, the window of opportunity lifted wide open.

Paul Hubbard has separated himself as the team's current No. 1 receiver. But Kirtley is right in the thick of a competition with Jeff Holzbauer, Marcus Randle El and Luke Swan for the spots in the depth that follow. With six scholarship receivers joining the team this fall, the current crop has to capitalize on every chance to impress the coaching staff now.

"Excitement," Kirtley said when asked to describe his mentality this spring. "Not everybody gets the opportunity to just walk on and be able to play for a Big Ten school like Wisconsin. Really I'm just excited for the (April 22) spring game."

What does Kirtley feel he can bring to the wide receiver position?

"I know I'm not the fastest guy in the world but I know I do have pretty good hands," Kirtley said. "I think what I can bring to the offense is really a possession receiver. That's what I see myself as. I would love to have breakaway speed… If I get the opportunity I will try to take it the distance, but I do definitely see myself as a possession receiver."

Prior to the start of spring practices, Kirtley recorded a 4.63-second 40-yard dash. A good route-runner who appears to have an impressive feel for the game, Kirtley plays a little faster than he times, but, as he said, he is not going to be running away from people. But he uses his body well to shield off defenders and he has a knack for catching passes in traffic.

Kirtley weighed about 170 pounds when he first arrived at Wisconsin, and has added about 15 pounds since.

"That's definitely one aspect that I definitely want to work on is getting my weight up," he said.

"John Dettmann and his staff have just been working with me," Kirtley said, referring to UW's strength and conditioning coach. "They do a great job… By the time summer camp comes around in August I hope to have at least another 10 pounds on."

Kirtley has quickly earned the respect of receivers coach Henry Mason.

"He… pretty much came up to me and told me ‘You do have the ability to play here,'" Kirtley said. "‘It's pretty much you just going out and doing it.'

"It's really been a confidence builder for me. Coming out and being a little more confident in myself, knowing that coach does think I do have the capabilities to be able to play here."

Even though UW had to replace its top three receivers, Kirtley was somewhat surprised that he has moved up the depth chart so quickly.

"I was actually real surprised," he said. "… Because I knew they had a lot of people that were behind the top three that left. So I was kind of surprised these first couple days…

"Then again I wasn't, because I kind of know what I can do. It is pretty much just me going out there and doing it. I've just been competing out there, just trying to get a top spot out there."

He is well on his way.

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