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August 3, 2011

Fall outlook: Wide receivers

MADISON - When asked how he felt his junior season went Nick Toon didn't hesitate to answer.

"It was disappointing," the senior wide receiver said. "It was not what I wanted to happen."

Toon, who was fresh off his best fall camp as a Badger, entered the 2010 season with high expectations. He wanted to be the best wide receiver on the team. He wanted to be the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. He wanted to be a legitimate Biletnikoff finalist.

But it wasn't meant to be.

During a week one rout of UNLV, the then junior wideout suffered a toe injury that wound up lingering throughout the next few weeks. Having had to deal with his turf toe issue, Toon was unable to fully accelerate his conditioning and practice reps, so he limped through what turned out to be a modest season with 36 catches for 459 yards and three touchdowns, one that was 18 catches and 346 yards less than what he accumulated as a sophomore.

"I learned a lot of things last year," Toon said. "I'm going to use them to make this year better."

Toon missed all of spring camp as he recovered from an off-season foot surgery that will hopefully ensure him complete health when fall camp starts later this week. As the only senior at a position that needs to produce, Toon will be the beginning and end as to how far this wide receiving unit progresses.

If he has a big year, as any Badger fan has to hope for, it's likely the UW offense will function at a high rate yet again. Will that mean it scores better than 40 points per game? Not necessarily.

But a healthy Toon would do nothing but relieve some stress on the offensive line and running back and fully utilize the exceptional talents of Russell Wilson.

He just can't try to do too much, especially since he'll be eager and anxious to get back on the field after such a long layoff.

"That's not something I worry about," Toon said. "I'm just going to go out and do what I do and try to play my best football. When I get the opportunity to make a play, I want to make the play. When my number is called I've got to answer."

In short, it's either Toon or sophomore walk-on Jared Abbrederis that the wide receiver position will rely upon to produce throughout the majority of the season. It's not entirely deep, as evidenced by a lack of production from several of the young players currently entrenched in what should be one of the more intriguing positional battles of fall camp.

There seem to be guys such as Jeff Duckworth, Isaiah Williams, Manasseh Garner, Chase Hammond and a couple of true freshmen that will be vying for playing time and a spot in DelVaughn Alexander's receiver rotation.

In general, fall camp is a time for stiff competition. You want a bevy of players outside the two-deep trying to find a way in because that's what makes players better. Having someone push you is always better than sitting atop the perch without anybody holding you accountable.

Expect players like Garner, Duckworth and Hammond to make a true push to join both Toon and Abbrederis atop the depth chart by the time the season opener rolls around.

"We have a lot of young guys on the team that I think are obviously very talented," Toon said. "They're going to come in and do some big things. As far as receivers go, like I said earlier, I think Kenzel Doe, Jeff Duckworth, Manasseh Garner and Isaiah Williams are all great players.

"All of them are probably going to contribute this year, but we'll see who wants to compete during fall camp."

The burning question

Which young player is poised to break out

Now that Garner has found a new home as a combo wide receiver/tight end, he's the most likely suitor for a breakout season. He'll be able to focus entirely on the offensive side of the ball - as opposed to playing both tight end and defensive end a year ago - which will lead to more continuity and consistency from his end throughout practice and games as a sophomore.

He clearly has talent, as seen by his ability to play, and play well, on both sides as a true freshman. If he's able to channel that into what he's doing on a day-in, day-out basis, he's got everything needed to be a special player. Now entering his sophomore year, expect him to be a name heard quite frequently this fall.

On the rise

Jeff Duckworth and Isaiah Williams

Duckworth is a quiet and humble player that has potential to be just as loud as he is quiet as a contributor. He's not the flashiest, quirkiest or most dominant receiver on the roster, but he's effective. If his production in spring camp a season ago was any indication of his future, expect him to become a legitimate pass-catching threat in Paul Chryst's offense.

Williams, as one of the bigger receivers on the roster, has unlimited potential. He could easily become a favorite in the red zone because he's simply more physical than a lot of the receivers on the roster (outside of Toon) are. He's not afraid to go across the middle. He's not afraid to out-muscle a defender during a jump ball. And he's not afraid to make plays. With a talented quarterback such as Wilson now in the fold, a guy like Williams could easily be utilized simply because there isn't a throw Wilson can't make.

The most interesting man

Chase Hammond

He's the tallest receiver on the team. He runs like a gazelle. He has the ability to stretch the field. And he has yet to put it all together.

If he does, and maybe this will be the fall camp where it happens, he could be one of the surprise players on the roster.

Key competition

Who will become the third wide receiver?

Personally, it seems as though Garner was inching closer to that role by the time spring camp came to a close. He may be one of the more athletic players on the roster, he's humble, hard working and talented. All of those personality traits form a recipe that will translate into on-field success.

Don't count out Duckworth or Williams, though, as each has their own unique style that will (assuming they perform well in camp) force the coaching staff to make some tough decisions in regards to playing time.

Quote worthy

Bret Bielema on Toon's ability as a player and leader

"I think Nick Toon naturally has good leadership skills. He's a kid that says the right things. He has a pretty good mature sense of awareness all the time with where he's at. On the football field I think the only thing that's limited Nick is his injuries. You guys saw him in fall camp and I thought he was going to have a huge year.

"Then obviously the first game, to go through what he went through, I reminded him that the only year he stayed injury free, his sophomore year, he was ridiculous. I know a lot of people at the next level have talked highly about him if he can stay healthy. It's a big thing, but I think it's a mental thing for him to challenge himself to."


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