MADISON, Wis. — The early stages of Wisconsin’s spring football practices haven’t revealed which quarterback has the edge in the race to be a starter. But whichever player is throwing the ball next season may very well be looking for wide receiver Marquis Mason as a primary target.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema said that Mason, a hometown product from Madison East High School, has made significant strides in just two practices this spring and could challenge for playing time.
“I believe we have 98 kids (at practice) right now,” Bielema said on Monday. “Nobody made a bigger jump in my opinion in a certain couple of areas from Thursday to Monday as Marquis. He made a couple nice catches last Thursday.”
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Mason, a 6-foot-4, 223-pound sophomore, has yet to play a game at Wisconsin. He took a redshirt season in 2010 and suffered a torn ACL last spring, which caused him to miss all of 2011. He appears to be fully healed, and Bielema said he was particularly struck by a leaping, one-handed catch Mason made in practice last week.
Mason’s emergence could be vital as the Badgers look to replace the production of departing senior Nick Toon, who caught 64 passes for 926 yards with a team-best 10 touchdowns. Jared Abbrederis is the team’s other starting wide receiver. But the second wide receiver slot appears wide open, and Mason may be in the mix. The only other wide receiver to contribute last season was Jeff Duckworth, who caught 15 passes for 230 yards with a touchdown.
Mason was a standout basketball player at Madison East and actually sat out from football during his sophomore year of high school to focus on basketball. But his talent in football soon drew the interest of major college programs, and he picked Wisconsin over a basketball scholarship from UW-Milwaukee. During Mason’s senior season, he caught 14 touchdown passes and had 866 receiving yards, earning him first-team all-conference honors.
“He’s so freaky athletically,” Bielema said. “He’s basically a full year removed from the ACL (injury). He’s a kid that I think had to battle a lot upstairs and with his knee. Those basketball guys, you’ve got to take your time with them. We’ve brought that mentality. I think he’s gaining ground. … I’m excited. Here’s a guy that’s got a little something that nobody else has. The more we can bring that out, the better we’ll all be.”
New kicking crew: Bielema said Wisconsin’s kicking duties currently belong to Kyle French (kickoffs and field goals) and Drew Meyer (punts). The two will replace Phillip Welch and Brad Nortman, respectively, who both used up their eligibility last season.
French, a 6-1 sophomore from Menomonee Falls, Wis., saw some action last season behind Welch. French made 3 of 5 field goal attempts and 26 of 27 extra point tries.
The 6-2 Meyer, from Hartland, Wis., took a redshirt season in 2011 and was ranked as the No. 13 punter in the nation coming out of high school.
Bielema said French made all four of his field goal attempts during live drills on Saturday.
“To get kickers ready, it’s all about trying to create as much pressure as possible,” Bielema said. “Nothing is going to ever make it 80,000 (fans) next fall. But you can try to do it as best as possible.”
Injury updates: Several key returning players off last season’s Rose Bowl team won’t be participating in at least part of spring practice, Bielema said.
That list includes No. 1 wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and No. 1 tight end Jacob Pedersen. Abbrederis irritated a foot injury during Wisconsin’s bowl game against Oregon on Jan. 2, and Bielema said he would be out three to four weeks. Pedersen has a groin injury and likely won’t return until after spring break in second week of April.
“Some guys that have played some good football for us, they’re kind of in that maybe not quite ready (stage),” Bielema said. “I said, ‘Let’s wait until after the two weeks we have here and the week of spring break.’ It gives them three more weeks of healing.”
Bielema also said that cornerback Devin Smith, who is recovering from a foot injury that required surgery last season, could return for the end of spring practice as well.
Other players that Bielema said will miss spring practice entirely include linebackers Mike Taylor (hip) and Ethan Armstrong (hip), guard Dallas Lewallen (knee cap), offensive lineman Rob Havenstein (shoulder) and quarterback Jon Budmayr (elbow).
Budmayr has been dealing with nerve damage in his throwing elbow since last season, and Bielema said Budmayr would visit the Mayo Clinic this week for further tests.