MADISON, Wis. — At times this spring, Wisconsin’s wide receiver unit has resembled something of an infirmary all its own. And for a group desperately trying to prove it is not the weak link in the Badgers’ offense, well, having an extraordinarily high number of injuries hasn’t exactly inspired much confidence.
Consider that three of the team’s possible top four receivers have missed either all or most of spring practices, which wrap up Saturday with the team’s annual spring game at 3 p.m. in Camp Randall Stadium.
Rob Wheelwright suffered a knee injury during the Badgers’ first spring practice and said he didn’t expect to play in the spring game. Alex Erickson, who seemed in position to battle for the No. 1 receiver spot, is out for the entire spring with a knee injury sustained during the team’s Jan. 1 bowl game against South Carolina. And Jordan Fredrick’s right shoulder has bothered him most of spring after he tried crack-blocking safety Leo Musso in practice.
Determining which receivers will emerge, then, to make up for the departure of all-conference pick Jared Abbrederis has not been easy. During some practices, Wisconsin has operated with only four healthy receivers, including A.J. Jordan, who switched back after trying safety because of the slim numbers.
"It sucks," Wheelwright said. "It really does. It seems like when one gets healthy, another one gets hurt. Hopefully after this spring game, we can all get back healthy and get ready for fall camp."
Gone is Abbrederis, who caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards with seven touchdowns a year ago and proved to be the only viable long-ball threat in each of the past two seasons. Wisconsin’s returning wide receivers — Fredrick, Erickson, Kenzel Doe and Wheelwright — caught a total of 28 passes for 299 yards without a touchdown reception.
In other words, the gap between last year’s production and what is needed of this year’s group is vast. And Fredrick, for one, understands people may not have high expectations for what this group can produce.
"You’ve just got to prove them wrong, which kind of gives you a little chip on your shoulder," said Fredrick, the team’s leading returning receiver with 10 catches for 106 yards. "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."
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen called the wide receiver group "a work in progress" after Thursday’s spring practice. And he noted the team likely would need to rely on at least a few incoming receivers signed for the Class of 2014. That group features four-star recruit Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio), along with Natrell Jamerson (Ocala, Fla.), Chris Jones (Baltimore, Md.), George Rushing III (Miramar, Fla.) and Krenwick Sanders (Jesup, Ga.).
"A couple of those kids have got to come in and be factors," Andersen said. "And if we can do that, we’ll have a chance to be a very potent offense. If we can’t do that, then it’s going to be tough. And that is the bottom line, and that’s where I see the offense right now."
Not even players seem sure exactly how things will shake out. Fredrick, who played opposite Abbrederis the past two seasons, could emerge as the team’s No. 1 receiver as well as Erickson, though Doe — the only returning receiver with catches who has stayed healthy through spring camp — has impressed coaches this spring.
"Who knows?" Fredrick said. "Everything changes once it’s game week. Things get a lot more real. Spring ball is less pressure, just kind of playing football. But when it comes down to it, I think it’s going to be a whole new animal in fall camp. That’s the biggest thing. Some guys have got to be more natural instead of thinking too much, being robotic and everything, just kind of go play ball. That’s usually when you make the plays."
The most intriguing receiver on the current roster would seem to be Wheelwright, who came to Wisconsin as a four-star recruit last year from Columbus, Ohio. Wheelwright caught only two passes for nine yards a year ago as he learned the playbook and adjusted to the speed of the college game. But at 6-foot-2, 198 pounds, he has the physical skills and quickness necessary to make an impact.
Fredrick said Wheelwright’s route-running skills were the second-best on the team a year ago behind Abbrederis. And now, it’s up to Wheelwright to take the next step and help this wide receiver group become something better than what people expect.
"What really helped me was just my route running and watching Abby and making his route look like my route," Wheelwright said. "Trying to mimic him, mirror him what he was doing. He was a great route runner. He’s really helped me a lot without him even knowing it.
"As of now, I’m just trying to be creative. You still listen to your coach, but you make it your own type of route. And that’s the good thing about me. I’m pretty good at just learning what coach says and adding my own."