Badgers wide receiver Rob Wheelwright played in 12 games as a true freshman last year, but he caught only two passes for nine yards.
FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Jesse Temple analyzes the 25 most important players to the Badgers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find every report here.
Note: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Wisconsin will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered. The list does not include incoming freshmen because their potential impact is unknown at this time.
Some could argue Wheelwright deserves to be higher on this top-25 list based primarily on potential. But Wheelwright still has to show the coaching staff he can stay healthy, grasp all of the team’s plays and impact a game when it matters most.
Wheelwright, a 6-foot-2, 198-pounder, was one of the top receiving recruits in the country out of high school. And the fact he played in 12 games as a true freshman last year is a sign of how much coaches value his ability. Most true freshmen take a redshirt season because they either aren’t strong enough or aren’t mentally prepared enough to handle the grind of a long college season.
If Wheelwright can stay healthy — something he wasn’t able to do during the spring — then he could become Wisconsin’s big-play receiving threat. That is an area the Badgers desperately need help in now that Jared Abbrederis is off to the NFL. Wisconsin has other receivers — Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson, among others — but Wheelwright could be the most dynamic of any of them.
Expectations for 2014
Wheelwright caught two passes for nine yards last season. Those numbers aren’t going to cut it if Wisconsin wants to have a successful passing game in 2014. No one is suggesting Wheelwright or any other receiver needs to match the numbers put together by Abbrederis because that’s a task that simply won’t happen. Abbrederis caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards with seven touchdowns and left as one of the most effective receivers the program has ever seen.
Still, no other receiver in the program caught more than 10 passes last season. That is alarming, of course, but it also creates an opportunity because there are catches to be had. Wisconsin’s top four pass catchers from last season — Abbrederis, tight end Jacob Pedersen, running back James White and receiver Jeff Duckworth — are all gone. That’s 168 of the team’s 217 overall catches from last season (77.4 percent).
If Wheelwright can emerge, it will take significant pressure off the team’s quarterbacks (either Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy), as well as the running game. Wisconsin will have a heavy run-oriented offense, but the Badgers won’t be as successful as they want to be without a player like Wheelwright stepping up in 2014.
If Wheelwright does not turn into the type of threat Wisconsin needs, the Badgers will have to look to other receivers. Fredrick, Erickson and Doe all have experience in games, but it remains to be seen whether any of those three can become more consistent passing-game threats.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen has said he’ll likely need at least a couple of the team’s five incoming freshman receivers to play immediately. That could create an opening for Dareian Watkins, George Rushing III or somebody else. But Wisconsin will be a lot better with Wheelwright playing at a high level. Wisconsin does not have a single receiver on the roster that caught a touchdown pass last season. The state of the position, then, looks a bit dire.