April 22, 2010

Post spring camp: Wide receivers

MADISON - Now that David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson have reached senior status, there is plenty of pressure for the trio to contribute to a position that can use the help.

Other than Nick Toon, nobody in the Badger receiving core has seemingly assumed a leadership role. And that is something the coaching staff, particularly position coach DelVaughn Alexander was hoping to see this spring ball.

"They hadn't taken a leadership role as much as we wanted," Alexander said. "But they still have time to do that. Those guys don't talk a lot so they try to demonstrate being the leader through their actions."

Those actions, as Alexander noted, were seen throughout the second half of spring camp. Jefferson didn't look nearly as hesitant while running routes and looked to be focused on making an impact during his final season.

Anderson, though there were some run ins with concentration issues and dropped balls, seemed to progress and holds the second starting spot alongside Toon. And Gilreath, who finally has healthy feet, looked to be every part the weapon he has shown flashes of throughout his career.

If those three continue to progress, the unit will have a legitimate rotation of four guys that will not only give more scouting responsibilities to opposing teams, but also keep them fresh throughout the season.

With limited depth this spring, the potential impact of that rotation began to shine through, even if the fundamentals weren't always present.

"They've been running a lot the last two weeks," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "We've only been practicing with five or six guys. At times, we had three guys on the field at a time. One of those six guys was Chukwuma Offor, who we just moved over. Not to make excuses for them, but yeah, they need production and they need to be better catching the football.

"There are some fundamental things we need out of that position."

Individually, Toon had the best spring, and it may not have been close, among the regular starters. Only Jared Abbrederis, who looks to be a reserve this year but should factor into the rotation as his career draws on, had a similar spring production wise.

Toon, already known as an elite talent, was dominant in the red zone. Should he build on that headway, the junior wide out will be one of the best receivers not only in the Big Ten, but also the nation.

He has great size and even better speed. His eye-hand concentration is top notch and he seemingly reels in more balls thrown his way than not. There is no question he is at the top of the rotation, and one of Scott Tolzien's go-to talents.

"He's a physical receiver," Tolzien said. "The way he can go up and get the ball is a security blanket throwing to Nick. You think nothing bad is going to happen. You have a little bit bigger margin of error with him and his size."

Anderson, as previously mentioned, has an opportunity to be an above average talent opposite Toon. With Kraig Appleton no longer involved with the team, it seems as though that spot is Anderson's to lose.

Realistically, the only thing that seems to hamper Anderson is his inconsistency with being consistent. The senior has all the physical tools necessary-good speed and use of size-to be better than serviceable. It's just a matter of finding consistency.

"You definitely become frustrated," Anderson said of his struggles a season ago that he worked to fix this spring. "Coach Chyrst pulled me to the side and was like, 'Man, just focus on your fundamentals and trust yourself.' I think that helped me out a lot so I learned from that situation.

"I don't feel that anxiety or frustration. I just trust my fundamentals."

Gilreath looked a bit faster and more confident making cuts after having some time to rest his sore feet from a season ago. He will yet again be the staple of an end around play that seems to find success every time offensive coordinator Paul Chryst decides to unleash it.

Overall, it seems as though Gilreath is poised to combine all of his success into his final season.

"I hope I can put the last couple of years together," Gilreath said. "I had a good returning year, a decent receiving year and good rushing year. Hopefully I can put it all together for a big senior year."

Should Gilreath and Anderson provide even the slightest bit of production this season it will do nothing but take pressure off Toon. That, one could argue, would make him even more productive.

The real dark horse of the group is Jefferson. After bursting onto the scene as a true freshman, Jefferson suffered a couple of harrowing concussions that seemed to derail any progression. At the same time, those injuries seemed to raise anxiety levels while he pressed to perform at a high level.

"Getting two concussions is not too pretty," Jefferson said. "You try to secure yourself for the next one but you can't. You can't think like that. I learned that. You've just got to play. I'm not worried about it. If it happens again it just happens.

"I'm not going to wait for it and I'm not going to prepare for it."

Now, entering his final season, Jefferson seemed to endure spring practice injury free and looked to be having more fun on the playing field. At 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, Jefferson would be another tall receiver to play alongside Toon. Imagine those two players in the red zone, along with tight end Lance Kendricks. That is some quality size at the skill positions.

"I just go out and play and have fun," Jefferson said. "I let the coaches and everybody else decide if I play well. I just go out, have fun and perform and do what I do. I just keep competing and doing things to have fun and show the coaches and the people around me that Kyle is back, Kyle is doing this and Kyle is doing that."

Finally, and perhaps most impressive throughout camp, was Abbrederis. Early in spring ball, Abbrederis was a highlight reel machine. Whether he was burning defensive backs and reeling in throws for touchdowns or simply going across the middle and catching the ball in the crowd, Abbrederis had a great spring camp.

"He's the talk of the town," Alexander said midway through camp. "He's done a great job and he understands his assignments a little bit better. He's playing really, really fast and he's not afraid of contact. You just kind of mold that through the spring and see what is available and if he's the same person in the fall."

At this point, barring injury, it would be tough to see Abbrederis breaking into the rotation. But then again, not many had even heard of Abbrederis prior to March and now he's on his way to becoming a household name.

The kid works hard on and off the field and will surely be a contributor before it's all said and done. Whether that is this fall or not remains to be seen.

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