MADISON, Wis. - Just about the time Wisconsin's young receiving core started to make progress last fall, the season was ending.
Isaac Anderson broke out for a 100-yard receiving game against Minnesota, David Gilreath was giving opponents nightmares on end around plays and Nick Toon was recording his first career touchdown against Cal Poly.
But as quickly as that momentum started, it ended. A miserable showing in the Champs Sports Bowl hampered any further progress for the Badgers until this spring when practice started again.
Throughout spring camp, it was visible that the unit as a whole carried more confidence than years past. All four at the top of the depth chart-Toon, Gilreath, Anderson and Kyle Jefferson-all stood out at given times during the 15 allotted practices.
But none stood out more than the young Toon. As the biggest receiver on the roster, he used the off-season to tone his body. Both Toon and Jefferson participated in track before football started and it was that competition that helped them generate more confidence on the football field.
"It's kind of fun to just have something to go out and still be able to compete in the off-season," Toon said earlier in camp. "It keeps the competitive juices flowing. Obviously track is pretty physically exhausting so it kept me in shape and I feel it made me quite a bit faster and quicker."
Going against Aaron Henry, one of the team's best corners, all spring also helped Toon. Henry is not afraid to get physical and has great instincts on the field. But on several occasions, Toon flexed his muscles and ripped the ball away from Henry for gains.
Toon wasn't perfect by any means throughout camp, but he seems poised to have a breakout season in 2009. With his athletic ability, he will definitely be a force in the red zone.
Along with Toon, Gilreath and Anderson also seemed to make strides throughout spring ball. Gilreath would be the first to tell you that he wants to get better off the line of scrimmage. To this point in his career, he has had plenty of success in the return game and on end-arounds, but his primary focus this spring was getting better as a wide receiver.
"I showed I could do some things and now I have to go out there and show the people that I can play some ball at the at the line of scrimmage too," Gilreath said earlier in camp. "I don't think there's much pressure. I just go out there and showing now that I can be consistent and keep going."
Anderson also had an effective spring camp for the most part. He flashed his speed at multiple times and showed some ability to catch the ball in traffic, something the receivers struggled with at points last season.
He isn't very tall, but he plays bigger than his body suggests. However, it was a little discouraging near the end of camp that he was allowing mental mistakes to limit his progress and ability on the field.
During one of the final practices of the spring, Anderson was the culprit of two false start penalties that derailed any offensive momentum the team had going during a modified scrimmage. It's those same mental mistakes that hurt the team as a whole in 2008.
"For me, as a wide receiver, it's inexcusable," UW head coach Bret Bielema said after that particular practice. "That was a big one."
But that one particular bad day for Anderson did not retract the gains he made on the field this spring.
Jefferson, who added approximately 12 pounds to his frame seemed more confident receiving the ball, especially across the middle. In each of the past two seasons, Jefferson has unfortunately been on the wrong end of crushing hits. It was good to see he was looking confident in his abilities throughout the spring.
His speed in particular, will allow for potential big plays this fall, especially if Toon continues to progress and take the bulk of the defensive attention.
Finally, T.J. Williams, who is still somewhat raw, was starting to get his feet wet and make some plays during camp. He is a small receiver that has big speed, but he likely won't see many reps this fall with the four ahead of him and four-star recruit Kraig Appleton coming in.
In general, the position seems to be the strongest and deepest is has been in recent years. It can be argued that this unit has the potential to be as successful as the unit of Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr and Brandon White a few years back.
"We can be as good as we work," Gilreath said. "I think we can be great by the end of the day, but we'll see."
Projected Depth Chart:
Wide Receiver (Z):
Nick Toon, SO.
David Gilreath, JR.
Elijah Theus, SR.
Nate Emanuel, SO.
Eric Kossoris, SO.
Wide Receiver (X):
Isaac Anderson, JR.
Kyle Jefferson, JR.
T.J. Williams, RFR.
Maurice Moore, JR.
Richard Kirtley, SR.
Note: Daven Jones did not participate in spring ball as he recovers from a torn ACL injury.
As compared to last year at this time:
Losing Paul Hubbard and Luke Swan left many wondering how the wide receivers would respond. Well, as everyone can remember, there were some growing pains, especially early in the season with the young core.
The final verdict:
By shouldering most of the load last year, and with everyone returning in 2009, the wide receiving group as a whole is in much better shape than it was last year at this time. Add in Appleton, and this unit has the potential to accomplish some great things this fall.
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