March 15, 2011

Spring outlook: Wide receivers

MADISON - Just minutes after concluding a productive spring camp a year ago, Nick Toon talked about his drive to become one of the nation's premier wide receivers.

At the time, it was tough not to believe him. He's a powerful receiver with enough speed to be effective, though it probably wasn't enough to blow by anybody. He had displayed a knack for making tough catches look routine and a willingness to go across the middle and dabble in traffic.

Just a few short months after Toon told BadgerBlitz.com he had goals of becoming a 'legitimate Biletnikoff contender' he was tearing up his teammates during fall camp.

Until he hurt his toe just a couple weeks shy of the season opener and then again during the season opener at UNLV. The setback was just the start of one of the more frustrating seasons for one of the team's better players at a skill position.

Fast forward a number of months and here we are yet again. Spring camp is set to open exactly one week from Tuesday. And with a new quarterback in toll, and a handful of wide receivers leaving the program due to graduation, it looks as though Toon will enter his final spring season as the unquestioned leader and most experienced of the group.

As Bret Bielema always says, when No. 1 plays well, UW plays well.

As a senior, Toon will have the unwritten responsibility to guide some of the younger players into their roles.

Jared Abbrederis, a walk-on that burst onto the scene last fall, will likely start alongside Toon at the wide receiver position. As one of the fastest players on the roster, Abbrederis seems to have a pretty solid connection with projected starter Jon Budmayr.

Having worked on the scout team for the first couple of seasons in the program before breaking into the regular rotation, Abbrederis now has a chance to emerge as legitimate deep threat that the Badgers have been lacking in recent seasons.

Behind the two obvious choices at wide receiver things get a little bit interesting.

Manasseh Garner, a stud athlete that played on both sides of the ball a year ago, is back and exclusively at wide receiver. With his size - he is built almost like a H-back - Garner has to be one of the favorites to break out by the start of the season. Any momentum he carries into fall camp will likely start this spring.

"As of right now I'm working with the receivers," Garner said during bowl prep. "I really don't talk to the coaches concerning what they plan on doing. As of right now I'm back with the receivers and I'm stepping in and just learning. Every day is a learning process from the beginning of the season until now.

"I'm back on the offense and getting back into the steps and everything."

Then there are guys like Isaiah Williams, Chase Hammond and Marquis Mason waiting to make their splash at the position.

Williams, who plays bigger than his 6-foot-1 frame suggests, seems to be settling into his position. He's big, physical and focused. His hands are pretty sure and as a freshman during his first season at the collegiate level there seems to be a bevy of potential for the Florida native.

"I would technically call myself a big, strong receiver," Williams said during bowl prep. "I will go into traffic and make big catches. I can also get up field. I'm not the shifty receiver that people look for, but more of a guy that can get up field, make a move and score touchdowns.

"I'm not afraid of contact at all. I embrace it. I give out the contact."

Like Williams, it seems as though Hammond is another physical receiver ready to break into the mix. Though he has a little more height than Williams, Hammond still proved to be willing and able to catch balls across the middle of the field. He also seems to be a capable possession receiver for the Badgers moving forward.

If nothing else, he'll likely help make the wide receiver position battle one of the more intriguing ones this spring camp.

Finally, Marquis Mason, a player that openly admitted basketball as his first love, continues to be an intriguing prospect. As a Madison native, the former East High School native is very familiar to many around the city.

Though a couple of injuries sidelined the big receiver early last season, it seemed as though Mason was finally adjusting to the speed of the college game by the end of the year. In doing so, Mason has likely set himself up for an important spring season where he could push for playing time during his redshirt freshman season.

"Coming into fall camp I knew very little," Mason said during bowl prep. "So I was very timid because I didn't wan to mess up a lot. My coach is going to push me to the limit and he definitely pushed me. After I reached that hump I began to settle in and everything started sinking in.

"That led to me getting more comfortable which led me to where I could show my talent off."

Where does this leave Jeff Duckworth?

Duckworth, a player that received some play last season in blowout situations, seems to be in a great position as well. In a spring camp where several positions are seemingly up for grabs, it's all up to the players to prove their worth.

Entering his third year in the program it seems there has been no better time for Duckworth to make a push towards regular playing time.

Another intriguing prospect is Kenzel Doe. Doe, the only early enrollee from the 2011 recruiting class, has already impressed players and coaches alike with his speed. He could legitimately come into the program and replace David Gilreath as a dangerous kick return threat.

Whether or not he breaks into the regular rotation remains to be seen, though.

Connor Moutvic, Connor Cummins and Chukwuma Offor round out the wide receiver position group.

PREDICTION:

Toon and Abbrederis, barring injury, are the undoubted starters entering spring camp. They'll receive the bulk of the reps with Budmayr with hopes of establishing a legitimate chemistry.

Behind them it gets a little cloudy. Guys like Hammond, Duckworth, Mason, Garner, Williams and Doe will likely battle for No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 wide receiver status. Breaking into the two deep during fall camp relies heavily on what happens during the spring.

Expect Garner to be towards the top based on his experience as a freshman. Besides him, don't be surprised to see Duckworth make a push toward playing time. The trio of redshirt freshman will battle a spot in the rotation as well.

This will be one of the more intriguing positional battles to keep an eye on during spring camp.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:

WR:

NICK TOON, R-SR
MANASSEH GARNER, SOPH
ISAIAH WILLIAMS, R-FR

WR:

JARED ABBREDERIS, R-SOPH
JEFF DUCKWORTH, R-SOPH
MARQUIS MASON, R-FR

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