The breakdown: For the third consecutive season, talk will center on the need to find more consistency among Wisconsin’s wide receivers unit. But this time, there is no Jared Abbrederis around to bail out the rest of the group. That development should force Badgers receivers to compete with a greater sense of urgency because this team won’t win the Big Ten West without better receiver play.
Jordan Fredrick is the team’s leading returning receiver, yet he caught only 10 passes for 106 yards without a touchdown last season. Kenzel Doe has shined in his role as the team’s return man, but he needs to produce more at receiver, whether he’s in the slot or lined up out wide. A year ago, he caught seven passes for 57 yards. And there isn’t a single returning receiver that caught a touchdown pass last season.
Alex Erickson looked to be in position to challenge Fredrick for the No. 1 receiver spot, but Erickson sustained an injury during spring practices. Still, he should be one of the team’s top choices in the passing game. Last year, he caught nine passes for 127 yards and has the best average yards-per-catch among returners.
If Rob Wheelwright can stay healthy and develop as coaches hope, he could greatly contribute this season because Wisconsin needs big-play threats. A year ago, he caught two passes for nine yards as a true freshman.
The biggest mystery is in how Wisconsin’s five incoming recruits — Natrell Jamerson (Ocala, Fla.), Chris Jones (Baltimore, Md.), George Rushing III (Miramar, Fla.), Krenwick Sanders (Jesup, Ga.) and Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio) — will impact the group. The coaching staff has said they’d like at least a couple of those guys to contribute immediately, and they may have to for Wisconsin to have much success in the Big Ten.
Best position battle: There hasn’t been much separation in determining a No. 1 wide receiver on this team, so the first few weeks of fall camp could go a long way toward helping to determine that battle. Fredrick has the most experience, but that doesn’t guarantee him more passes in games. Fredrick and Erickson seem to be the same type of receiver, so they could challenge each other. Doe has said he wants to be the No. 1 receiver as well, but he’ll have to prove he’s more than a slot man.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Maryland; 2. Northwestern; 3. Nebraska.
With Stefon Diggs and Deon Long set to return from injuries that kept both out late last season, Maryland’s receivers will be difficult to deal with. Diggs finished the year with 34 catches for 587 yards with three touchdowns. Long had 32 catches for 489 yards with a touchdown. Teammate Levern Jacobs stepped in nicely to fill the void last season and finished with team highs for catches (47) and yards (640) with three touchdowns. Nigel King led the team with four touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 450 yards. With all four available this season, Maryland should have a potent passing attack.
Northwestern is here based on the strength of Tony Jones and Christian Jones, two seniors who will earn the bulk of the catches. Tony Jones had 55 catches for 630 yards and four touchdowns last season. Christian Jones tallied 54 catches for 668 yards and four touchdowns. Cameron Dickerson also should be improved after catching 11 passes for 125 yards with a touchdown.
Kenny Bell is Nebraska’s best receiver, and he’ll be counted on to lead the team in catches for a fourth consecutive season. A year ago, he caught 52 passes for 577 yards and four touchdowns. Throw in Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner and Sam Burtch, and the Cornhuskers have enough weapons to be dangerous.
Jordan Fredrick says: "You’ve just got to prove them wrong, which kind of gives you a little chip on your shoulder. It comes with any team or any person that they say you can’t do something, it makes them work a little harder. So it’s actually nice hearing that. If people weren’t worried, maybe we’d get a little more relaxed and not work as hard.
"That’s the biggest thing is we’ve just got to keep working hard. But going into the season, none of us are really worried. As a group, we know we can make plays and we’ve just got to do it."