Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Badger Receivers Want to Play a Bigger Role This Season
It has been four years since a wide receiver has led the University of Wisconsin football team in receptions or receiving yards.
That’s too long, in the opinion of sophomore wide receiver Nick Toon.
“Hopefully, we can change that around this year,” Toon said in the spring.
The last receiver to lead UW in catches and receiving yards was Brandon Williams, who caught 59 passes for 1,095 yards as a senior in 2005.
Since then, it has been all tight ends, all the time.
Travis Beckum led in both categories in 2006 and ’07. Last season, when Beckum was limited to six games by injuries, Garrett Graham caught 40 passes for 540 yards.
“I don’t think it’s any secret Travis was the go-to guy,” Toon said of the past three seasons, when Beckum was healthy. “He’s gone now. It’s someone else’s turn to step up.”
Graham, a first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection a year ago, is back for his senior season and is the leading candidate. So, there’s no reason to expect the tight end trend to vanish this season.
Still, given the improvement of the wide receivers in the past year, they should at least re-establish themselves as more than blockers and decoys.
Receiver was one of the youngest positions on the team last season. Now, with everybody back, it’s one of the most improved — and deepest.
The receivers bonded through the adversity of the first half of 2008, when drops and inconsistent play were issues. The group started to emerge in the second half of the season.
David Gilreath, now a junior, helped snap a four-game losing streak with two touchdown grabs in a 27-17 victory over Illinois in the eighth game. He finished second on the team with 31 receptions for 520 yards and three TDs, and earned second-team All-Big Ten Conference recognition.
Toon caught 14 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown in the last five games, while Isaac Anderson, now a junior, had a breakout performance against Minnesota in the penultimate regular-season game with six receptions for 114 yards.
“We did come together,” Toon said. “Coming together also comes with maturity. We’re maturing as a group, getting older. That helps. We have a lot of threats at the receiver position. I think we can take over that role (go-to receiver) this year.”
Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander is certainly aware of the diminished role for his players but said they have to prove themselves worthy of getting balls thrown to them.
“We don’t talk about it,” Alexander said of tight ends leading the team in receptions. “I might be aware of it. They’ve led the team and they deserve to do that, with Travis and the type of player he was. Our goal is to lead and help in any way we can.”
Toon and Anderson led the way in the spring. After coaches toyed with the idea of moving the 6-foot-3 Toon to H-back, he lost weight and now looks poised for a big season. He was close to 230 pounds in spring 2008, but was down to 207 last spring.
In the spring game, Toon caught four passes for 62 yards, including a touchdown on a 4-yard fade route from Curt Phillips.
“You saw Nick, they just can’t stop him,” Phillips said afterward.
Anderson battled injuries — mostly muscle pulls — during his first two years, including a redshirt season in 2007. He managed to stay healthy in the spring until suffering a minor foot injury in the spring game.
The way Anderson responded to his opportunity in the Minnesota game is what Alexander is looking for from the group.
“All of those guys know the opportunities are there, they just have to seize the moment, as coach (Paul) Chryst would say,” Alexander said. “I’m hoping they recognize that and take ownership in doing that.”
Gilreath did the best job of that last season, emerging as a big-play threat as both a runner and receiver. He had 125 receiving yards against Cal Poly and 168 rushing yards against Indiana.
Kyle Jefferson leads all receivers with 40 career receptions for 601 yards and two touchdowns. He looked ready in the spring to shake off the effects of two vicious hits that resulted in severe concussions in each of his first two seasons.
Toss in highly regarded incoming freshman Kraig Appleton and the competition should be keen for the top four spots. Appleton, 6-4, 200 pounds, likely will be ready physically. So, his playing time will depend on how quickly he picks up the offense.
“Coming in the door, when you know nothing, it’s tough,” Alexander said when asked how much Appleton could contribute. “All these guys have come in and played as freshmen. They’ve taken spots (from other players) and had their spots taken, so they understand that.
“If (Appleton) comes in and does some of the little things, he’ll have opportunities. If he can’t, then they’re safe. (The older players) are going to hang onto what they can.”