MADISON, Wis. — The college football season is short enough as it is with only 12 guaranteed games per season. For Kenzel Doe, a playmaker still trying to find his footing on Wisconsin’s team, the last thing he wanted was to sit out two of those games with an injury.
But that’s exactly what happened to the Badgers’ 5-foot-8 speedster. Doe strained a hamstring in practice before Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener against Purdue and couldn’t recover in time for a huge matchup with Ohio State.
“It’s been hard because of the fact that the season isn’t long,” Doe said. “You play in three games and then you get hurt before the Big Ten opener, so it’s definitely been hard.”
Doe spent the Badgers’ bye week on the mend and has been cleared to play when Wisconsin (3-2) hosts No. 19 Northwestern (4-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. And his impact will be needed on the field as both a slot receiver and return man.
A year ago, Doe caught 16 passes for 121 yards and developed into one of the few reliable wide receivers outside of standout Jared Abbrederis. He also proved to be a solid kick returner. His average of 27.9 yards per kick return ranked best on the team. He averaged a team-best 12.4 yards per punt return, including a spectacular 82-yard touchdown return against Utah State last season that swung momentum in Wisconsin’s favor during an eventual comeback victory.
This season, Doe is averaging 22.2 yards per kick return and 9.4 yards on punt returns. Doe’s 9.4 yards would rank sixth-best in the Big Ten if he had enough chances to qualify. But perhaps his most important contribution is keeping Abbrederis off the field for punt returns — and away from absorbing even more hits.
Abbrederis has returned five punts, though he has been involved in numerous fair catches. Given that he is the team’s best wide receiver, the Badgers cannot afford for him to suffer an injury.
“The first thing you hope Kenzel can give us is a boost in the return game,” Wisconsin wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said. “It’d be nice to not have to use Abby back there as much, take some of the hits off of him, use him more when you need to. And then on kickoff returns as well. I think that’s a big thing.
“Plus, you’d just like to have another player in the slot. I think Alex (Erickson) has done a good job. He’s going to continue to play there. But I think Kenzel gives us a little different run-after-catch potential. Those things can make the group better. It’s just a matter of him getting full speed. He’s got to get back in shape, knock some of the rust off. He needs to hurry up and do it.”
As a wide receiver this season, Doe has not produced at a rate that would take pressure off Abbrederis. He has made two catches for 19 yards and has only been targeted a total of five times. As a means of comparison, Abbrederis has been targeted 59 times and has 33 catches.
Still, Doe is the type of receiver who can make a game-changing play from the slot, and his addition as the Big Ten season continues could prove vital.
“He can make big plays,” Badgers wide receiver Jordan Fredrick said. “He hasn’t always been presented with the opportunities. It’s the same thing as me. We all make plays every once in a while. We’re all capable of making them. But Kenzel is quick. He’s so quick off the line. He’s got a special athleticism. You’ve just got to give him an opportunity.”
An opportunity is something Doe has been waiting on for three weeks since his injury. And he is simply grateful there are more games for him to make an impact.
“I’m definitely excited,” Doe said. “Missing two games, that’s hard. But knowing that I’ve got seven more games to prove myself on special teams and as a receiver, I’m very excited to go out there and contribute to the team the best way I can no matter what it is.
“I’m not disappointed. I’m not down about it like, ‘Man I’ve got seven games.’ No, it’s seven games. That’s a lot of time to continue to prove yourself and take a load off Abby.”