Spring Position Preview: Wide Receivers

With the Wisconsin football team starting its 15-spring practice slate this week, Badger Nation dives into the position battles. Next, we focus on the wide receivers, a position that didn't lose one player to graduation and only got better as the 2008 season wore on.

MADISON – Ask about the outlook on his position on Spring Football Media Day, the usually reserved and stoic DelVaughn Alexander could hardly contain his smile.

With six players returning that caught passes last season are back in the fold and having a group, with just one senior, that has combined for 28 starts and 116 games play at his fingertips, it was no surprise that UW's wide receiver head coach was anxious to get started.

"I am very excited to get this group moving," he said. "We have a group that knows what is expected of them and that allows me to do a lot more teaching, which excites me. We still have a lot of growing to do and I am looking forward to getting that done."

The numbers Wisconsin's receivers put up last year reflect that growth. With quarterback issues plaguing the offense, the Badger passing offense averaged only 188.1 yards per game, a number that ranked 84th in the nation about FBS schools.

Drops were a constant fixture of Wisconsin's offense during the first part of the season, including a seven-drop performance in UW's second-half collapse in Michigan.

UW's leading wide receiver last season was David Gilreath (520 yards), but Gilreath will so far has been remembered for his end-arounds and his kick returns. After Gilreath, the Badger production dropped off, as Isaac Anderson (286), Nick Toon (257), Kyle Jefferson (189), Maurice Moore (61) and Elijah Theus (17) were the only other means of receiving offense for UW, as the five combined for 810 yards of UW's 1,330 catching total.

As the season wore on, some Badger receivers took steps forward, setting themselves up for a solid spring and 2009 season.

Gilreath, because of his running ability, became a legitimate big-play threat, as a runner and receiver, while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. He finished sixth in the league in all-purpose yards and his three touchdowns were the most among UW receivers. Gilreath's running ability garnered him 25 carries for 295 yards and two scores, including a 90-yard run vs. Indiana that is the second-longest in school history.

"I think David is a guy that needs to be dynamic," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "He did a good job in the run game with the little stuff we were doing and he's just got to be a consistent receiver."

In addition to Gilreath, Wisconsin saw vast improvements from junior Isaac Anderson and sophomore Nick Toon as the season progressed. Anderson, who missed all of 2007 because of a hamstring injury, took over the starting job in week six and showed his abilities with a six-catch, 114-yard performance against home-state Minnesota.

Anderson also may be UW's best blocking wide receiver, as he was named UW's co-offensive player of the week against Indiana after not registering a catch, but delivering key blocks to help Gilreath to a career day rushing the ball.

Toon, the son of former Wisconsin wide receiver Al Toon, hauled in at least two passes in each of the last five games, one of which went for his first collegiate touchdown in the season finale.

In the team's last five games, both Anderson and Toon hit their stride after getting acclimated to the offense and the game speed, catching 26 passes for 383 yards and one touchdown.

"When he plays with confidence he can be pretty good," Chryst said of Toon. "He's got good hands. I think he's running well. I think a young guy won't play as fast as I guy that feels settled in. I think last year gave him some confidence and I think with that, he's able to cut it loose a little more. I am excited for where he could end up."

While other guys stepped up at the end of the season, junior Kyle Jefferson regressed. After catching 26 balls for 412 yards and two touchdowns during his rookie campaign, Jefferson was nagged by injuries, including playing four games with a broken pinkie and being carted off the field in an ambulance following a vicious hit against Minnesota, his second concussion in two seasons.

Through two spring practices, Jefferson looks like his old self, using his height and athleticism to extend a grab high passes and his confidence to go over the middle of the field and not be afraid of the big hit.

"Last year was really challenging, a down year and I didn't expect it to go that way," Jefferson said. "Things happen and I just had to fight through one of the toughest years I have had playing sports. I sat down with my family and really talked it out. I really just want to get better and have a new attitude."

With Xavier Harris forced to leave the program because of lingering back problems, Maurice Moore recovering from off season surgery and Daven Jones still recovering from last year's torn ACL and out for spring practice, the extra reps have been thrown in the direction of senior Elijah (T.J.) Theus (who caught his first catch for a 17-yard touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl) and redshirt freshman T.J. Williams, who was recruited for his breakaway speed in the open field and has made a handful of solid catches along the sideline thus far.

Junior Nate Emanuel and sophomore Eric Kossoris (both Wisconsin natives) figure to be battling for a third-string position, but both have been hampered by drops in the early going.

With the Badgers having plenty of capable athletes competed for four spots, the competition for the X and Z receiver positions appears to be one of the heated spots to watch over the next three weeks.

"Each guy has to go after each other and it's about respecting each other," Alexander said. "At the same time, they have to be selfish enough to want to be on the field the entire game. It's about finding your players, who is going to be productive for you in the fall and putting a team together."


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