MADISON, Wis. — Gary Andersen is well aware of the perception out there about Wisconsin football: that the Badgers are a big, pound-the-rock type of team that only throws when absolutely necessary.
Much of that belief has been based on fact over the years, of course. But Andersen, in his second season as Badgers coach, is already tired of other programs using it against him in recruiting battles.
And so, Andersen is looking to change that long-held perception, which is why he and his coaching staff went after speed at the skill positions with everything the group had this year.
The result was the signing of five wide receivers, the team announced Wednesday during National Signing Day festivities. Wisconsin officially brought in 25 scholarship players, and only the offensive line (six) had a bigger haul than wide receiver.
What does it mean for Wisconsin’s offense? Well, it could mean plenty if players pan out the way coaches hope.
"If you look at that position, as we went through the recruiting process, it became very apparent that we were going to get attacked," Andersen said at his signing day news conference. "You know, ‘Wisconsin doesn’t throw the ball. Wisconsin this. Why would you go there? You’re never going to get the ball thrown to you.’ But these young men understand the direction and the vision of where the offense wants to go and where we want to take the offense. We definitely upped ourselves in the athleticism there."
The five wide receivers — Natrell Jamerson (Ocala, Fla.), Chris Jones (Baltimore, Md.), George Rushing III (Miramar, Fla.), Krenwick Sanders (Jesup, Ga.) and Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio) — each brings a different dimension, which should benefit a Wisconsin team in desperate need of playmakers in the passing game.
Jamerson caught 119 career passes for 2,096 yards and 42 touchdowns. As a senior, he earned first-team Class 6A all-state in Florida after catching 68 passes for 1,195 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Jones recorded 30 catches for more than 500 yards and two touchdowns as a senior at powerhouse DeMatha Catholic on a team with six FBS and seven FCS signees. He also recorded 150 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl and was named the most valuable player.
Rushing, who flipped his commitment from Louisville and committed to Wisconsin only two days ago, caught 49 passes as a senior for 670 yards and 18 touchdowns despite playing with two other teammates that also accepted FBS scholarship offers.
Sanders finished his career with 199 catches for 3,613 yards and 56 touchdowns. As a senior, he caught 65 passes for 1,483 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Watkins was a five-time first-team All-North Central Conference honoree, twice as a quarterback, twice as a punter and once as a wide receiver. He earned third-team all-state at wide receiver in Ohio as a junior despite playing only five games at the position.
Wisconsin wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said the team targeted five wide receivers from the outset of their recruiting mission. He also said the Badgers were fortunate because they got the players they wanted rather than reaching to find recruits to fill out the class.
"I think we want to try to improve our athleticism," Beatty said. "I always look at it in recruiting as if you do one thing really well, I can hopefully help you with the rest of it. So if you’ve got great ball skills, that gives you an opportunity. And if you’ve got great speed, then we can enhance some of the other things that you may not have. You’re not going to get finished products. Very few high school kids are finished products. Usually if they are, everybody else in the world wants them, too.
"But you want to see them be able to be exceptional at something and then be able to build on that. I think we feel good about the class we got. And we wanted all types of kids that have different strengths. Not just one set of guy that we’ve got five guys that all have the same game."
Beatty described Watkins and Rushing as bigger, faster players with straight-line speed and an exceptional ability with the ball in their hands. Sanders and Jones are more vertical players capable of stretching the field. Jamerson, meanwhile, will add value in the return game and provide catching ability out of the slot.
Given the current state of the Badgers’ receiving corps, any number of the incoming signees could play immediately. Beatty, who has served as a receivers coach at West Virginia and Vanderbilt, said he didn’t recruit players to redshirt at any previous stop and didn’t intend to begin doing so now.
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said he hoped three of those players would impact the offense next season.
"It’s not one of those situations where we want them to come in and take their time and learn the offense and we’ll get you in when we can," Ludwig said. "We’re going to force feed them. They’re going to get a ton of reps during the course of summer and fall camp. And those guys have got to be ready to play for us."
Wisconsin loses No. 1 wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns. Of the team’s 217 receptions last season, only 42 came from players that will return in 2014. And just 28 of those catches came from receivers. Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe are the Badgers’ leading returning receivers, and none caught a touchdown pass last season.
"We’ve got to get better as a group," Beatty said. "We’ve got to make up for Jared leaving. There’s a hole, and some people have got to fill it."