A season ago, tight end Jacob Pedersen was the unexpected breakout player, the bonus threat to an elite quarterback in Russell Wilson and a receiving crew led by Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis.
Finishing third on the team behind Abbrederis and Toon with 356 receiving yards on 30 receptions, the then-redshirt sophomore became a favorite target for Wilson — particularly in the end zone, where he grabbed eight touchdowns. That season left Badger fans drooling at the thought of the second coming of Lance Kendricks circa 2010, when the AP second-team All-American caught 43 balls for 663 yards.
But Pedersen, who head coach Bret Bielema said dropped three passes in the loss to Nebraska Saturday, is not shy about admitting he hasn’t matched his own expectations.
“There’s no reason for [quarterback Joel Stave] to target us,” Pedersen said. “We don’t make the plays for him; we make him look bad. I wouldn’t throw to me either. So that’s got to be a trust level, he’s got to be able to trust me, so we’re working on it.”
Through five games, the redshirt junior tight end has shown shades of his 2011 form — his best performance a four-catch, 36-yard day including his lone touchdown catch of the season against Oregon State — but is off the pace of last year’s Mackey Award semifinalist form.
Pedersen and No. 2 tight end Brian Wozniak have together accounted for only 132 yards through the air this season, the former with 95 receiving yards and the latter adding just 37 more. But the man whose eight touchdown grabs tied him for second-most in the nation last year said picking up his play is a mental battle.
It’s something he has not faced before, but Pedersen refused to place the blame on anyone aside from himself.
“As far as the drops, my coach took blame for stuff like ‘I’m not doing enough drills,’” he said. “I learned to catch when I was 3 years old, so it’s not on him at all. It’s just something I [need] to work on; I just got to get in more reps after practice, get on the jugs, things like that.”
Though Wisconsin is best known for producing a steady supply of NFL-caliber offensive linemen and power-based running backs, tight ends have established a more recent legacy of success wearing the cardinal and white. Kendricks is now in his second season with the St. Louis Rams, and former Badgers Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham both play for the Houston Texans.
Pedersen seemed the next man in line to continue that trend, but a revised playbook under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the increasing use of tailbacks as receivers out of the backfield have changed how tight ends are used. Though Pedersen said he is running just as many routes as last season, the new offensive coordinator’s system has given 12 different players at least one reception this year.
“I don’t think it’s declined so much as [Canada is] just trying to find the best ways to get us the ball,” said Wozniak, who often lines up opposite Pedersen. “[Abbrederis] is playing great, so we want to get him the ball in the air. … I just think that it’s getting spread out more to two guys instead of just one sole guy.”
But according to UW tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner, the Badgers used tight ends on 75 percent of their offensive snaps against UTEP and Utah State, evidence they still maintain an important offensive role.
One of Bielema’s six new hires in the offseason, Faulkner is quick to point out Pedersen’s numbers declined in the second half of last year and such a trend could reverse in 2012. And the Menominee, Mich., native’s most important contributions this season may have come in helping other receivers get open and blocking along the edge of an offensive line that has not consistently cleared the way for running backs as in years past.
As he tries to cut down on the dropped passes and mental mistakes that have given him stats barely better than his best game of 2011 — 80 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon State — Pedersen said he must continue to play to his strengths, something he got away from early this year.
“My coach asked me on Sunday what I got to do, and I just said ‘be me,’” Pedersen said. “I’m trying to do be something I’m not, so I just … [need] to play and I think I’ll be fine.”
Wozniak and Bielema both said the redshirt junior has looked impressive in practice and seems confident he will help the Wisconsin offense put together a complete game with consistent scoring drives, something it has searched for all year.
But first, Pedersen must regain trust in himself and remember what created these expectations in the first place.
“He’s just at a certain point — we [have] all the faith in the world in him — it’s just him having the faith in himself and making sure he’s keeping that confidence. And he will,” Faulkner said.
“He’s a good player, he’s a resilient guy, he takes ownership of whatever it is that’s going on, and we move forward.”