MADISON, Wis. — Jared Abbrederis didn’t have the first inkling about proper route-running technique, receiver stance or blocking schemes when he joined Wisconsin’s football program three years ago.
Oddly enough, the top wide receiver in the Big Ten this season was more concerned with throwing passes for a scout team that never saw the field on game day. He had been brought in specifically to serve as the Badgers’ spread offense quarterback with the reserves.
But it soon became clear to coaches that Abbrederis, an all-state high school quarterback in Wautoma, Wis., was too good to keep off the field. So Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema intended to give Abbrederis the choice of playing either defensive back or wide receiver.
On his way to meet with Bielema, Abbrederis ran into then-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who offered this plea: Stay on offense at wide receiver, at least through the next fall camp, and see how you progress.
“I ended up staying because he had confidence in me,” Abbrederis said. “That’s what I remember. Just being a quarterback, having the ball, being able to run with it well, I think that’s one of the main reasons I stayed on offense.”
The Badgers sure are grateful for that decision.
Three years later, Abbrederis has become one of the best wide receivers in the nation through hard work and desire. The redshirt junior leads the Big Ten with 103.2 receiving yards per game and ranks second in the league in yards per catch (19.1) and touchdown receptions (five).
Last week against Illinois, he became the first Wisconsin player since Lee Evans in 2001 to record three straight 100-yard receiving games. Only Pat Richter, a College Football Hall of Famer, has recorded four straight 100-yard receiving games in Wisconsin program history, achieving the mark in 1961.
Talk about finding a diamond in the rough.
“It’s definitely been a blessing to be where I am today,” Abbrederis said.
This season has been the most impressive of his career because of the attention he garners from opposing defenses every game. A year ago, he caught 55 passes for 933 yards with eight touchdowns as the team’s No. 2 wide receiver behind Nick Toon.
Now, Toon is with the New Orleans Saints in the NFL, and Abbrederis can’t hide from anyone. Still, defenses can’t stop him.
“He’s a very good football player,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “He was doing this last year, too, making big plays. Now he’s a target. Everybody knows we’re trying to get him the ball and he’s still finding ways to make plays.”
Abbrederis possesses the characteristics of a player who never had anything handed to him, largely because he has been forced to earn every second of playing time. He came to Wisconsin as a walk-on and didn’t receive a scholarship until January — in his third year with the program.
Abbrederis is one of five former walk-ons on Wisconsin’s two-deep roster, joining linebacker Ethan Armstrong, defensive tackle Ethan Hemer, quarterback Joel Stave and left tackle Rick Wagner.
It is a mentality that Abbrederis carries every day in practice.
“I’m not thinking of myself as the No. 1 guy,” Abbrederis said. “Not because I don’t have confidence in myself. But just because I want to earn it no matter what. I want to go out there each day, earn my reps, earn what’s given. Definitely that walk-on mentality just keeps going with you.”
Abbrederis has proven invaluable in teaching younger wide receivers about the virtues of hard work, bringing them in during off days to watch film. But perhaps the best way to determine Abbrederis’ value to Wisconsin is what happens when he doesn’t play.
He missed the second half of Wisconsin’s Sept. 8 game against Oregon State after he sustained a chest injury and a concussion on a hit over the middle. He sat out the following week’s game against Utah State.
With no player on the team capable of stretching the field, Wisconsin’s offense faltered. The Badgers scored 23 points in the two games combined.
Since Abbrederis’ return, Wisconsin has scored at least 27 points in all three games. And Abbrederis is a key reason for that success. He has averaged 135.3 receiving yards per game during that span.
“It’s so much fun to play with a really good player like Jared,” Stave said. “Him being out there makes it so much easier for me because I have so much confidence in him, knowing where he’s going to be on his routes and things like that. He makes it a lot easier for me.”
Despite missing a game and a half, Abbrederis leads Wisconsin in receptions (27), receiving yards (516), yards per reception, yards per game and touchdown catches.
For comparison’s sake, all of Wisconsin other wide receivers who have seen the field — Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Jeff Duckworth, Chase Hammond and Reggie Love — have combined for 27 catches for 283 yards and no touchdowns.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Fredrick said of Abbrederis’ numbers. “You see a couple good games every once in a while from receivers, but to do it consistently, week in and week out like he has in practice and in games, it’s unbelievable. You know he’s a big player here when you see that. That’s something you just look up to and learn from.”
First-year Wisconsin wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said he worked with Abbrederis on fine-tuning his skill set. This season, Abbrederis has honed his stance, routes and blocking position — all skills he lacked when he joined the program three years ago.
“It’s all the things the layman doesn’t usually see,” Azzanni said. “They see the end result, which is a catch. I think he’s a lot better. That’s a testament to him working at it.”
Abbrederis looks back to his first spring camp in 2010 as the moment when being a wide receiver clicked for him, even if he was still a novice to most offensive concepts.
“I had a couple deep passes, posts, touchdowns, things like that,” he said. “That really gave me the excitement again to play, and that’s when I knew I could play at this level.”