MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s wide receiver core could be broken down into two groups last season: Jared Abbrederis and everybody else.
For Abbrederis, the team’s standout long ball threat, that meant garnering most of the throws — and most of the attention from opposing secondaries. For the rest of the Badgers’ young and inconsistent wideouts, it meant plenty of route running with few catches to show for it.
The model clearly did not create sustained success. Once defenses realized they could take away Wisconsin’s passing game by targeting Abbrederis, the Badgers were cooked. As a result, Wisconsin ranked 111th out of 120 FBS teams last season in passing offense, averaging 156.9 yards per game.
Wisconsin is busy preparing for next season with spring practices this month, and the team’s wide receivers say they’re ready to provide the support that was missing a year ago.
“I feel we’ve gained a whole lot,” Badgers receiver Kenzel Doe said. “We’re out here making plays you didn’t ever see last year.”
One of the issues a year ago was the lack of returning game experience from Badgers wideouts. Doe, who became Wisconsin’s slot receiver, had two catches for four yards in his career before the season. Jordan Fredrick, who emerged as the No. 2 wideout, was a freshman taking his redshirt season in 2011. That inexperience led to mistakes on the field and an inability to gain separation on defenders.
“Our guys have grown up a lot, matured a lot,” Abbrederis said. “Just that year under their belt has really helped them. I think it’s going to be a different receiver group this year.”
Abbrederis caught 49 passes for 837 yards with five touchdowns last season. But he also didn’t catch a touchdown in the team’s final eight games and averaged 2.8 catches per game and 40.1 yards during that span. The Badgers went 4-4 in those games.
As a means of comparison, all other wide receivers on Wisconsin’s team caught 48 passes for 446 yards with two touchdowns during the season. Fredrick hauled in 17 passes for 196 yards with a touchdown, and Doe contributed 16 catches for 121 yards. Much of the time, they were busy blocking downfield for the Badgers’ running backs. But both players are expected to contribute in a more significant role.
“I want to make the claim that we were either one of the best or the best blocking wideouts in the country,” Fredrick said. “That was our pride. People look at the stats and see one catch, 10 yards, that’s awful. For us it was the big blocks, knockdowns, DBs on the ground. That’s who we are and that’s what made us big.”
New wide receivers coach Chris Beatty singled out Reggie Love, Marquis Mason and A.J. Jordan as players who have performed well during the first five spring practices. Love, a 6-foot-3, 209-pound sophomore, caught one pass for 19 yards last season. Mason and Jordan have yet to make a catch in a game.
Former wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni suggested last season that he hoped a group of three or four receivers could essentially contribute enough to form a No. 2 wideout. Beatty isn’t taking that same approach this season because he believes the load can be spread out more evenly.
“It’s like I tell those guys, ‘You earn what you get,'” Beatty said. “The more that we earn, the more that we’ll get. If we want to sit back and let Jared take all the reps, we won’t get better. But if we sit back and show that we need to be on the field, then we’ll get more receivers on the field.
“I don’t really look at it so much as we have to have three or four guys to collectively be one. We just need to be able to develop reliable, dependable receivers to be able to complement the other side. You’ve got a proven commodity over there. The other guys have got to earn what they get.”
Abbrederis will certainly be the primary focus of opposing defenses during his senior season. He said his individual goals included reaching the 1,000-yard plateau and catching 10 touchdowns for the first time in his career. But even if he achieves those marks, the Badgers will need help from some of their less heralded receivers to win Big Ten games.
“The way that we’re practicing now, hopefully it goes on into the fall and into the season where the ball isn’t going to be thrown to one guy,” Doe said. “It’s going to be spread around because of the fact that we’ve gotten better, we’ve got more experience in the game, we know how to take on certain situations. I feel like it’s going to be a whole different situation out here.”