MADISON, Wis. — When wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni began his first season at Wisconsin, he had no idea how the number of catches would be split among his players. Yes, standout Jared Abbrederis would garner the bulk of the throws. Beyond that, it was anybody’s guess.
“I knew collectively they were going to be the No. 2 receiver,” Azzanni said. “I really didn’t have one guy stepping up. They all do different things well. Collectively, they were going to be the second guy.”
Through nine games, Azzanni’s premonition has proven to be spot on.
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Abbrederis has caught 37 passes for 675 yards and five touchdowns, emerging as one of the top wide receivers in the Big Ten. The rest of the team’s wide receivers — Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Jeff Duckworth, Chase Hammond and Reggie Love — have caught a combined total of 35 passes for 346 yards and no touchdowns.
“We always want to do better than what we’ve done,” Fredrick said. “Obviously we could. There’s some plays that we’ve left behind. The plays that Abby has made, he deserves everything he’s gotten. No one is complaining about not getting enough. But we always want more.”
A year ago, Wisconsin’s offense hummed behind quarterback Russell Wilson, star running back Montee Ball and two talented wideouts — Abbrederis and Nick Toon. But Wilson and Toon are now in the NFL, and the team has struggled to find a comparable route runner to Toon, let alone a quarterback with the charisma, leadership and ability of Wilson.
At some programs, the overall lack of production from the rest of the receiving corps would be cause for alarm. And while coaches would love for more playmakers to develop this season, the Badgers’ pro-style offense also helps to mask the wide receivers’ deficiencies.
Tight ends Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson have accounted for 28 catches for 363 yards and three touchdowns. Fullback Derek Watt has seven catches for 65 yards. And the running backs have amassed 15 catches for 178 yards with a touchdown.
Azzanni has been involved with some high-scoring offenses at other schools, including as a graduate assistant under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green and later a wide receivers coach under Meyer at Florida. But he understands the philosophy at Wisconsin is different, which means reserve wide receivers get even fewer throws.
This season, Wisconsin ranks 105th out of 124 FBS teams in yards passing per game at 180.8. The team also has passed on just 35.2 percent of its offensive plays. For comparison’s sake, Wisconsin’s opponents have passed on 58.2 percent of their offensive plays against the Badgers. Wisconsin ranks 112th out of 124 teams in pass-to-run ratio.
“Are we going to go out there and be like some of the offenses I’ve been a part of in the past and have four and five receivers out there, throwing it 58 times?” Azzanni said. “No, we’re built for what we do here. We know the tight ends are going to get a lot of catches. That’s why we have splash plays out there. We throw the deep play-action, and that’s what we do and we know that. We’re built for that.
“When the tight ends and backs are having a good day, that takes some heat off of us.”
If there is one player to have emerged, even slightly, from the rest of the wide receiver pack, it appears to be Fredrick, a redshirt freshman from Madison. He has become a reliable, if underused, No. 2 wide receiver to Abbrederis, catching 11 passes for 138 yards. He is also the only other receiver with more than 90 receiving yards.
“I think he’s continued to let us see that he can grow,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s going to have certain limitations, but I think he knows those, and as coaches we do. He’s caught the ball extremely well.”
Not surprisingly, Fredrick said he attempted to model parts of his game after Abbrederis, the unquestioned leader of the wide receivers.
“The biggest thing I try to keep up with is his effort,” Fredrick said. “He gives so many reps during the week and in games and he still gives 100 percent every play, which is amazing. When guys get that good and make the plays he does, sometimes it gets to their head. Abby’s not a guy that’s done that. When you’re in there with Abby, you know you’ve got to keep up. It’s pretty obvious when you’re not giving all the effort that he does.”
Azzanni described the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Fredrick as the type of blue-collar player who understands what he can and can’t do on the field. He doesn’t out-run cornerbacks the same way that Abbrederis does, but he runs smart routes and can use his physicality to handle tough throws in coverage.
The key for Wisconsin is making sure it doesn’t become too predictable in the passing game. Throwing to four different receivers, even if they make up one collective second option, is better than the alternative.
“As coaches, we’ve got to put them in the right spot to be successful,” Azzanni said. “We put different pieces to the puzzle to do certain things in the offense. Luckily, we have a guy like Abby that can do a lot of those things. The other guys have to fill in when they can and do different things well.”