Badgers’ No. 2 WR spot up for grabs

This is the third in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 6 start of practice.

July 27: Quarterbacks
July 28: Running backs
July 29: Wide receivers
July 30: Tight ends
July 31: Offensive linemen
Aug. 1: Defensive linemen
Aug. 2: Linebackers
Aug. 3: Cornerbacks
Aug. 4: Safeties
Aug. 5: Specialists
Aug. 6: Coaches

TODAY’S POSITION: WIDE RECEIVERS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5

Projected starters: Jared Abbrederis (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Jeff Duckworth (redshirt junior), Chase Hammond (redshirt sophomore), Isaiah Williams (redshirt sophomore), Marquis Mason (redshirt sophomore), Manasseh Garner (junior).

The breakdown: If there is one significant question mark regarding Wisconsin’s offense in 2012, it comes at wide receiver.

Jared Abbrederis is the only experienced wide receiver on the entire roster, but a second wideout will need to emerge to help quarterback Danny O’Brien in the passing game. Last season, Abbrederis caught the second-most passes on the team with 55. He tallied a team-best 933 receiving yards and added eight touchdowns.

Beyond, Abbrederis, things get murky pretty quickly for Wisconsin.

Jeff Duckworth is the only other wide receiver on the team who caught more than two passes last year. Duckworth hauled in 15 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown, and he made arguably the catch of Wisconsin’s season late in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State to help the Badgers come from behind. Duckworth’s 36-yard reception between two defenders came on a fourth-and-six play with Michigan State leading 39-34 in the fourth quarter.

Of course, one catch won’t automatically catapult Duckworth into the No. 2 wide receiver role.

“I think he knows that catch is only going to get him to about the first game and no one cares anymore,” Badgers wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said during spring practice. “And he has that mindset.”

Wisconsin will need to replace the production of Nick Toon, who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. Toon caught 64 passes for 926 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns.  The Badgers could use a receiver-by-committee approach, but barring injury, they really only need one more wide receiver after Abbrederis to make the offense click.

Many of the passes in Wisconsin’s offense go to the running backs, the fullbacks or the tight ends. Last season, four of the top six leaders in catches played those positions. Running backs Montee Ball and James White combined to catch 39 passes, tight end Jacob Pedersen caught 30 balls and fullback Bradie Ewing caught 20 passes.

With Ball, White and Pedersen returning, O’Brien will have plenty of options. But finding a solid No. 2 wide receiver would go a long way toward making Wisconsin an elite-level offense in 2012.

Best position battle: Even with spring practice complete, it remains to be seen who will step up behind Abbrederis. And if it isn’t Duckworth, it very well could be Chase Hammond.

Hammond, a 6-foot-5, 212-pounder from Youngstown, Ohio, performed well during Wisconsin’s spring game, when he caught four passes for 48 yards and a touchdown. After years of battling injury, this could be Hammond’s breakout season.

Hammond has undergone three surgeries to repair a broken right ankle he sustained as a junior in high school. But with him finally fully healed, his athleticism is beginning to shine through.

The rest of Wisconsin’s wide receivers showed inconsistency during spring practice, so it’s too early to pronounce any of them as sure-fire members of the playing rotation. We probably won’t know the answer until a couple of weeks into fall camp.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin); 2. Keenan Davis (Iowa); 3. Roy Roundtree (Michigan).

The top five wide receivers in the Big Ten last season were all seniors, which means a new crop of wideouts will emerge as stars of the conference. As fall practice begins, Abbrederis is at the top of that list.

No returning player in the Big Ten tallied more yards receiving (933) than Abbrederis. Given Wisconsin’s lack of a No. 2 wide receiver this season, Abbrederis could either star again or be held in check thanks to double coverage.

Keenan Davis caught 50 passes for 713 yards and four touchdowns for Iowa last season. With the departure of Marvin McNutt (82 catches, 1,315 yards, 12 touchdowns), Davis should be the man in Iowa City.

Roy Roundtree experienced a statistical drop-off as a junior last season (19 catches, 355 yards, two touchdowns). But if he can return to his sophomore season form, when he caught 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns, Michigan will be especially dangerous in the Legends Division.

Jeff Duckworth says: “I feel like I definitely have to emerge a lot more than I have. I feel like I’ve made big plays this spring that I needed to, but I’m still competing, trying to earn that starting spot for next year.”

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