The 2014 Wisconsin Badgers had what it needed on defense, it certainly had the run game. However, there was one glaring weakness that stopped it from being a true national contender — any resemblance of a fearful passing game.
It was never more on display than in the opening and closing losses for the Badgers. It was partly a quarterback thing, as Tanner McEvoy opened up cold and ugly as a passer in the opener against LSU (). The other part of the equation was a wide receiver group full of potential and nothing to show on the field for it all.
Outside of wide receiver Alex Erickson and tight end Sam Arneson, the Badgers pass catching game was a dreadful thing to look at. The two combined for 84 receptions and were two of only the five wide receivers or tight ends in double digits of receptions.
Only Erickson returns as a wide receiver with double digit receptions from a season ago, so it shouldn’t be surprising that offensive minded head coach Paul Chryst is bound and determined to change things.
It could happen on the field in 2015, with a pair of young and promising wide receivers like George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders looking to make big jumps. Rushing finished last season with five catches for 62 yards and a 12.4 yards per reception average, while Sanders had just one catch for 10 yards in his debut season.
More than likely though, it will take time and the right players to make that transition happen. Good thing Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph know a talented wide receiver when they see one. At Pitt, the two coaches got the most out of names like Devin Street and Tyler Boyd.
However, turning things around at Wisconsin is going to likely take time and recruiting. That’s where the 2016 class, and the month of July, come in to play.
On Monday it was announced that two of the Badgers’ biggest targets at wide receiver — Demari Simpkins ($) and Brandon Benson ($) — would be visiting Madison, Wis. in late July for unofficial visits. Getting a kid from Florida and Texas on campus in July in Madison…yes please.
More importantly, getting two of the three biggest targets at wide receiver on campus…the same weekend. Giving the Florida natives a chance to bond and to feel that family vibe we hear so much about is going to be key.
These visits are also going to be key in turning both players from interested prospects to committed ones. With UW also targeting 4-star athlete A.J. Taylor at wide receiver, this threesome could go a long way in showcasing the ability of this offensive coaching staff to evaluate and recruit wide receivers.
Let’s remember that since coming back to Wisconsin as co-offensive coordinator (and then just offensive coordinator the next season) in 2005, Chryst had himself a pretty capable group of wide receivers at times.
His first season, Brandon Williams caught 59 passes for 1,095 yards and running back Brian Calhoun caught over 50 passes as well. In 2006, tight end Travis Beckum hauled in 61 receptions for nearly 1,000 yards.
In 2007, Chryst had a pair of future NFL tight ends and used them to perfection, with Beckum picking up 75 receptions and Garrett Graham pulling in 30. As for wide receivers, Wisconsin had two players with over 20 receptions to add to the mix as well.
The next season, Chryst was without the services of Beckum for half the season, but Graham managed to pick up the slack and have 40 catches. UW’s wide receivers weren’t slouches either, as David Gilreath led the way with 31 receptions and four pass catchers finished the year with 20-plus receptions under their belt.
It all continued the next season, but perhaps the 2009 season is the biggest selling point to a wide receiver. That’s because it was Nick Toon’s freshman season, and he came in with a bang — putting up 54 receptions for 805 yards and four touchdowns. He wasn’t alone either, as Toon was one of two players with 50-plus receptions that year (Graham being the other), and once again four players had 20-plus receptions.
In his final season as offensive coordinator (2011), Chryst had three players with 30-plus receptions. Leading the way was Nick Toon with 64 receptions, followed by Jared Abbrederis’ 55 and Jacob Pederson’s 30 catches. That’s 149 of a possible 225 receptions between three big time players.
Selling that kind of production in his offense shouldn’t be hard to incoming recruits, especially putting on that 2009 and 2011 highlight tape if he has it.
Giving that sales job becomes even easier when Chryst can point to his tenure at Pitt, where Chryst and Rudolph had plenty of talent and production at the position.
It started in year one (2012), where Devin Street had 73 receptions for 975 yards and five touchdowns — all three of which were career highs at the time.
In 2013 it was true freshman Tyler Boyd making all the plays, as he amassed 85 receptions for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns. Oh, and Street backed up his fine 2012 season with another 51 receptions, 854 yards and seven touchdowns of his own.
The final year for Chryst at Pitt also continued to showcase he knows how to get the most out of his talent, as Boyd had 78 receptions for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns to his name.
While there’s little doubt that Wisconsin is “Running Back U” and “Offensive Lineman U,” with Chryst back in the fold, he’s more than demonstrated he knows how to use pass catchers effectively. The 2016 recruits will be huge in rebuilding that wide receiver group, the question is will any buy what Chryst has clearly demonstrated in the past?
If Chryst can close on the three big targets by the end of the month or shortly thereafter, look for this trio to be a milestone group for the Badgers. Now the coaching staff just has to finish what it has started on the field and on the recruiting trail.