MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin desperately needed a wide receiver to emerge as a consistent No. 1 threat last season, and Alex Erickson filled that void perhaps better than many expected. He led the team in receptions (55) and yards (772) and did his best Jared Abbrederis impression on a team that did not possess many proven receiver commodities.
Now, he may have to be even better.
That’s because, for yet another spring practice season, few players have elevated their play consistently enough to show they can take pressure off Erickson in the passing game. The three players who ranked 2-4 in receptions last season are all gone: tight end Sam Arenson, running back Melvin Gordon and receiver Kenzel Doe.
The rest of the team’s returning wide receivers? They combined to catch 22 passes for 230 yards with a touchdown last season. And several candidates have been unable to stay healthy this spring, including Jordan Fredrick, A.J. Jordan and Rob Wheelwright. During Sunday’s practice, in fact, the team was down to seven healthy receivers.
"We’ve got quite a few guys that are hurt," Erickson said. "But I think a lot of guys have done well. We’ve just got to keep getting consistency. The more we have, the better we’re going to be and just keep pushing each other and competing every day."
Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy are the two players who have stood out most during portions of the spring. Peavy caught three passes and a touchdown during one five-play sequence from freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook on Sunday. Wheelwright, meanwhile, has all the physical tools to develop into a go-to receiver if he can stay healthy. He missed Sunday’s practice after sustaining an injury Friday, though he is expected to return to practice this week. He caught only one pass for 17 yards last season.
"In order to close that gap, obviously we’ve got to get some other guys to grow up," Badgers receivers coach Ted Gilmore said. "But we’ve got to get them all to play and be steady as far as their games and eliminate the valleys and the peaks."
It is all the more reason why Erickson will be counted on in 2015 to be a steadying receiver presence. Last season, he recorded at least 100 yards receiving in three games and caught a pass of more than 20 yards in five games — all despite the team struggling with quarterback consistency.
Erickson has continued to excel in the spring. During a practice last week, he sneaked behind the entire secondary and caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from starting quarterback Joel Stave.
"Three words sum him up," Gilmore said. "He’s smart, tough, dependable. Those three words. And as long as you’ve got that, you’ve got a chance. Because he is a guy that takes from the meeting room to the classroom, so you can count on that consistency. And that’s the one thing that he’s been doing. He’s been consistent. I’ve got to get some of the other guys to match his consistency."
Gilmore represents Erickson’s third receivers coach in four seasons, but Erickson said his relationship with Gilmore had flourished. Gilmore spent the previous two years as receivers coach for the Oakland Raiders and has experience at Big Ten schools Purdue and Nebraska.
"He’s obviously very experienced, knows what he’s talking about," Erickson said. "He’s been great. Obviously an NFL guy. So it’s fun to get a different perspective and hear him tell some stories about those guys. He’s got a lot of cut-ups of NFL guys, so I’ve been watching how they run routes and things they do. It’s very beneficial."
Erickson noted he spent parts of his offseason watching every play in which he lined up from scrimmage last season on his team-issued iPad. He said he was proud that he limited his missed assignments and generally was in the right spot on the field. But he also found several areas to improve.
"I was good at the line at times and sometimes, they’d get their hands on me too much," Erickson said of defensive backs. "I’m trying to eliminate the choppy steps at the top of the routes. That’s one thing coach Gilmore makes a really big coaching point on is just getting in and out breaks and not slowing down. So it’s been a great fit. I’m just continuing to work and take the advice."
Erickson took a significant leap a year ago considering he caught only nine passes for 127 yards in 2013. That was a season in which Abbrederis drew all the attention of opposing defenses in the pass game. This year, that figures to be Erickson’s role, perhaps even more than last season.
"Alex has been a really dependable player for the past two years," Stave said. "He always knows what he’s doing. He’s got a great feel for the defense, where to get in and out of his breaks and things like that. He’s got very reliable hands. I really appreciate the way that he comes to work every day and the option that he gives me."