March 6, 2010

Spring outlook: Wide receivers

MADISON - For a position that has encountered some off-field problems, including suspensions to both Maurice Moore and Kraig Appleton, junior wide out Nick Toon has been a steady rock.

As a sophomore, the local talent led the Badgers with 805 yards receiving from 54 catches. He also scored four touchdowns and showed that he was on the verge of becoming one of the conference's elite receivers as the season progressed.

"He's big, he's athletic and he's impressive," UW head coach Bret Bielema said during the season last fall. "Mom and Dad…brought him into this world and taught him that hard work is going to pay off and that you can't get by on just what's been given to you.

"I think Nick is beginning to see that."

If that is indeed the case, as was evident by his play throughout the season, Toon could become the next in line to join the likes of recent Badger greats such as Lee Evans, Brandon Williams and Chris Chambers.

He is a big body that poses problems for smaller corners and his track-like speed is tough to maintain. It seemed as the season progressed, Toon became more and more comfortable in the way he ran routes, caught the ball and beat opposing defenders.

As a young player that seems to be growing into his truest form, Toon is going to be one weapon in what figures to be yet another explosive offensive arsenal.

"I set my expectations high," Toon said early last season when asked about him becoming a go-to target. "If that's the way I can help the team out then I'm more than happy to do that. Hopefully I can continue to do that throughout the year."

Joining Toon at the receiver position is senior Isaac Anderson. For Anderson, the 2009 season was one of both highs and lows. To open the year, Anderson caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Scott Tolzien on the very first play from scrimmage.

After that, Anderson started to have some problems on the field that resulted in critical drops and costly penalties. By the end, Anderson finished with 480 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

But had those mental errors been corrected a bit earlier on in the year, those numbers would have been quite a bit higher.

Now, entering his final spring, Anderson has a chance to build upon those mistakes and round into form. He is one of the faster receivers on the team and has no lack of talent. It's just a matter of keeping his mindset in the right fold while making strides on the field at the same time.

Along with Anderson and Toon, UW has a couple of senior wide receivers in David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson. Since bursting onto the scene as true freshmen a number of years ago, both players have slowly found themselves lower and lower on the depth chart.

With the rise of Toon, Anderson and the currently suspended Appleton, both Gilreath and Jefferson only saw relief reps at the wide receiver position. Granted, Gilreath had his own package for the end around staple that Paul Chryst runs, but his production as a wide receiver slipped a bit as a junior.

Combined, both Jefferson and Gilreath accounted for only 212 yards receiving. If you compare that stat to 2008, Gilreath more than doubled that number by himself with 520 receiving yards.

It will be interesting to see how those two players approach their final spring camp with the hopes of breaking into the wide receiver rotation on a more consistent basis.

As a young player like Jeff Duckworth, T.J. Williams or Jared Abbrederis, spring practice presents an opportunity to catch the coach's eye. With most players receiving a similar amount of repetitions, it becomes easier to get into a rhythm both running routes and catching passes.

So, particularly with the absence of Appleton and Moore, it seems young players like Duckworth or Williams would have an opportunity to work their way into the wide receiver rotation.

If those younger players aren't able to work their way into the fray, maybe it will leave an opening for an older player like Nate Emanuel.

That, in essence, is what makes spring practice so much fun for these players. It serves as an opportunity to get a bevy of reps in front of the coaches when that isn't particularly the case during the season.

Projection:

It's safe to say that Nick Toon will be a go to target in the Badger offense as he has great size, speed and hands. He proved last year that he has a chance to be something special at the wide receiver position. It also seemed as though Scott Tolzien had a certain chemistry with Toon and felt comfortable with his ability to make a play when his team needs it the most.

Toon will be a playmaker for the Badger offense as long as he is in cardinal and white.

Next to Toon, it would probably be safe to assume that Isaac Anderson will get a lot of reps. If he can become consistently consistent and stay away from mental lapses that came back to bite him a season ago on occasion, Anderson and Toon could form a very formidable one-two punch at the receiver position.

Gilreath will likely man the slot position as well as his role as a ball carrier on that end around. Don't be surprised if a young player steps his game up and makes a name for himself by the end of spring camp. It could very well happen with either Duckworth or Williams.

Both of those players have shown that they are capable receivers on multiple occasions in practice.



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