A few months removed from enjoying a passing game that boasted a 168.1 passer rating, the Wisconsin football team now finds itself in the midst of an overhaul with its aerial attack.
Among the quarterback, wide receiver and tight end positions, only one starting incumbent from 2010 remains on the team.
Quarterback Scott Tolzien (189.2 yards per game, 72.9 completion percentage) and tight end Lance Kendricks (team-leading 43 catches and five touchdown receptions) have graduated from the college game and are currently waiting to hear their names called in the NFL Draft.
And while it will be tough for their successors to duplicate the output of these two standouts on the football field, the wide receiver position took its own blow as well.
UW waved goodbye to its third- and fourth-most targeted players, Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath, as well as the experienced Kyle Jefferson.
Of the 12 receivers they leave behind, only two of them are older than a redshirt sophomore. There are eight freshmen – although seven have already redshirted.
This leaves fifth-year senior Nick Toon and redshirt sophomore Jared Abbrederis as the lone wideouts with more than just a few plays worth of prior experience.
The two expected starters enter 2011 looking to lead the wide receiving corps this year under the new aerial attack.
Toon trying to make up for lost time
After a few nagging injuries (turf toe and a thigh bruise) removed Toon from four games during last season’s co-Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl run, he still hasn’t quite freed himself from the side effects of football.
Toon has spent the entirety of spring practice in a boot rather than football cleats after undergoing surgery on a fractured foot. The injury isn’t serious though, and he is expected to recover easily.
But with a new quarterback in Jon Budmayr, Toon’s time on the sidelines has robbed him of a chance to get acquainted with and establish some on-field chemistry with the man who’s going to be throwing him the football.
Now entering his third year as a starter, the rising Badger wideout says he’s taken a more mental approach at preparing for the season due to his injury, like spending more time in the film room, for instance.
And according to wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander, the Middleton native has embraced the approach.
“We spend a lot of extra time [with the quarterbacks] because of his injury,” Alexander said. “We’re trying to take more of a mental approach with him and he’s really bought into that and has really shown up in terms of the classroom, but you know you miss quite a bit when you can’t apply it on the field.”
The injury has also allowed him to watch the progress of his pass-catching teammates. Toon still attends practice and can be seen talking to his teammates on the sidelines of scrimmages, offering them his advice.
According to Abbrederis, Toon’s knowledge is most welcome.
“I think we can go to him with any question we have. That’s really helpful too, just having someone that’s been there, that’s done it. He knows a lot of the spots and a lot of the details, so he’s someone you can go to and just talk to him about how to get better,” he said.
After bursting onto the seen his sophomore year with 805 yards and four touchdowns on 54 catches, Toon’s 107 career receptions are 10th in UW history, and his 1,521 yards are 11th.
As he works his way into the Wisconsin record books, Toon hopes to establish himself as an elite wideout in the minds of many.
“I believe I am an elite receiver, not only in the Big Ten, but in the country…but hopefully I’ll be able to stay healthy and prove that by the way I play this year,” he said
Abbrederis steps up
One of the high points of spring practice has certainly been Abbrederis’ performance. The redshirt sophomore out of Wautoma has made play after play, steering clear of dropped passes and bad routes.
Abbrederis has been seen catching high passes out of the corner of the endzone, low passes inches from the ground and downfield passes that leave all else behind.
Head coach Bret Bielema has been pleased with Abbrederis’ production and leadership, especially with Toon sidelined.
“I think Abbey, since Nick’s been out, has really taken on that leadership role,” he said. “He’s up in the offices all the time; he’s working with the younger guys. I think he’s really beginning to grow as a playmaker.”
After joining the program as a preferred walk-on, the speedy 6-foot-2, 180-pound wideout caught 20 passes last season for 289 yards – 14.4 yards per reception – while also scoring three touchdowns.
Although he finished fifth on the team in receptions, Wisconsin definitely enjoyed giving him the ball last year. Throughout the season he received the ball on end-around plays, rushing for a total of 27 yards and returned 10 punt and kickoffs last season as well.
All told, Abbrederis accumulated 494 all-purpose yards – an average of just under 15 yards every time he touched the ball.
That’s a good start for a young player who’ll be counted on making plays this season at a position that’s full of inexperience.
“Jared’s obviously a great player, played a lot for us last year and you know, expecting big things out of him this year,” Toon said. “He’s very smart has great hands and loves the game. All of those make for a good combination in a player.”