Thanks to one returning junior, the Badgers' wide receivers will finally have a different ‘toon.'
The son of former UW great and New York Jets receiver Al Toon, Nick Toon is carving his own path at Wisconsin. He returns to the fold after leading the team with 54 catches for 805 yards – 11th-best in UW history - and four touchdowns averaging 14.9 yards per catch, doing most of his damage on slant routes over the middle and using his speed to get yards after the catch.
Toon didn't come into his own until the ninth game last season, earning his first 100-yard receiver game with a 123-yard effort against Indiana. Over the last five games, Toon averaged 78.6 yards. Combine with his impressive spring, Toon is building momentum and many pegged to have a breakout season as the offense's top receiver.
During the spring, quarterback Scott Tolzien wasn't shy about throwing the ball in Toon's direction and letting him go and get it, then standing and watching the speedy wide receiver run by shaking defenders.
While Toon's work ethic and concentration are second to none, senior Isaac Anderson is hoping to shake the bad habits and be more like his teammate. Anderson flashed potential from the first play of scrimmage in 2009, hauling in an 80-yard touchdown, but faded down the stretch, finishing with 30 catches and 480 yards.
Anderson's main bugaboo was the mental mistakes, particularly the drops that cost UW prime field positions in the Ohio State loss or the illegal procedure penalty that cost him a touchdown in the setback at Northwestern. Anderson has all the speed and talent in the world. Realizing that, he has spent the spring and summer concentrating on the fundamentals and relaxing on the field.
"I have been real detailed in everything I do and treat practice and every situation like it's a game situation," Anderson said. "I want to visualize running routes against the defensive backs and making plays. Separation is the key for me because I am a smaller guy and I can get away from guys. Just being really thorough and detailed."
While Toon and Anderson were the standouts, seniors David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson were the forgotten duo. Gilreath's numbers shrank to 12 receptions for 177 yards, partially due to a couple of banged up feet, though he did remain a favorite of Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst's in the run game, carrying the ball 19 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
Jefferson has been hampered by two concussions in his career, but seemed to be a different player in the spring than the one that caught only four catches for 35 yards last season. Jefferson's acknowledged the struggles he's gone through, but plans to be fearless in using his 6-foot-4 frame to make an impact on the field.
"I just sat down with my family and really talked it out," said Jefferson of blocking out the struggles. "Really just look back on the season and just get back and come back with a new attitude and a new position. That's what I did. I took that as a learning experience and now, I am focused and just ready to perform and help my team. That's what it is all about."
With Kraig Appleton kicked off the team in the spring semester and sophomore T.J. Williams leaving the program, the opportunity for playing time for redshirt freshman Jeff Duckworth (fully recovered from shoulder surgery) and walk-on Jarred Abbrederis (who used his speed in spring to haul in multiple deep throws) has presented itself.
There are also opportunities for UW's four wide receiver commits for 2010 – Manasseh Garner, Chase Hammond, Marquis Mason and Isaiah Williams. If any two players out of the group could step in and compete, it would be Garner and Hammond. Garner is a pure work horse and a versatile talent, playing H-back, playing a little receiver and a motion tight end for his high school, positions that should make it a fairly smooth transition into the UW's system.
Hammond is a playmaker that had a monster senior season, setting school records for yards and catches. He's tall, big body that runs crisp routes, attacks the defense and can catch anything within his reach. Even with UW losing three senior wide receivers and two others via dismissal/transfer, the depth at the unit gives no indication of a drop off.
The likely scenario
Toon should be and probably will be Tolzien's top receiver target through the season. Andreson, seeing his time ticking down, will make his father proud (a former Minnesota wide receiver) by having a solid, focused season. He also will make him semi upset by never losing to the Gophers in his tenure.
Jefferson, much like Anderson, will be refocused in his final season and will become a legitimate number three receiver in the offense. As for Gilreath, he'll be involved, but will have most of his success as a return specialist, especially since he shed the monkey off his back by returning a punt for a touchdown against Northwestern.
Duckworth and Abbrederis will both be involved in some capacity during the season, but probably more in the non-conference slate. If Garner develops like the coaches think he will, don't be surprised to see him involved in some capacity. He's too good of a talent to leave on the bench forever.