The passing attack commanded by Russell Wilson last season wasn't just unprecedented for Wisconsin. Wilson and the Badgers posted a passer rating of 191.2, the best mark since Sports-Reference has data (back to 2000); only seven squads since 2005 have posted a better yards per target than Wisconsin's 10.53 in 2011 with at least 200 attempts -- and that includes all of former Badger Joe Brennan's snaps and doesn't account for Wilson's absurd touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Although Wilson was obviously key – it wouldn't surprise me if Wisconsin never gets a better season out of a quarterback – some credit must go to the rest of the offense as well. Nick Toon should get a chance in one of the NFL's best offenses in New Orleans as a fourth-round pick and Jared Abbrederis opened eyes and became one of the Big Ten's most dynamic players with his breakaway speed.
Toon is gone, leaving the Badgers with Abbrederis, tight end Jacob Pedersen and a whole bunch of question marks at the receiving end of Danny O'Brien's passes in 2012. If history is any indication, though, the Badgers should be competent all-around, if not better.
Thanks to Bill Connelly and Football Study Hall for the data used in this post.
Observe, Wisconsin wide receiver/tight end yards per target marks compared to their national counterparts:
Above, all receivers with at least 40 targets (or just under 4 per game) are graphically represented by yards per target; Badger receivers are noted in red (naturally).
Two noteworthy things about this chart. First: Despite being known as runners first and passers second, Wisconsin has consistently produced three above-average receiving options for the past seven seasons. The Badgers have seen multiple players distance themselves from the typical college receiver, from Brandon Williams to Travis Beckum to Isaac Anderson to Lance Kendricks and finally Abbrederis with help from Wilson in 2011.
And the second thing: Abbrederis wasn't just excellent for a Badgers wideout in 2011, he was one of the best in the nation on a per-target basis. Only Coby Fleener (Stanford), Jalen Saunders (Fresno State) and Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech) had a higher yards per target in 2011 among receivers with at least 40 targets; only Saunders (75) saw as many targets as Abbrederis (74) among the trio.
One of the general rules of sports (perhaps life) shows as workload goes up, efficiency goes down. In baseball, that's why relief pitchers have a lower ERA; in basketball, it's why spot-up role shooters have higher percentages than primary scorers. In football, particularly in the passing game, fewer attempts tends to lead to a better efficiency. Look at Russell Wilson -- he shaved 218 attempts off his 2010 total with NC State and saw his completion percentage skyrocket by 14 points. Obviously team talent was a factor, but the lessened load must be accounted for -- every marginal attempt, generally speaking, is more difficult than the last.
And this consideration extends to the wide receivers. For every extra target given to Jared Abbrederis, chances are higher he's seeing a double-team (or other focused defense). Considering the workload given to Nick Toon needs to go somewhere, we can expect Abbrederis (as well as Pedersen) to see big increases in work load this season, both on standard downs (first downs, second-and-7 or shorter; third-and-5 or shorter) and passing downs (everything else) alike.
Wilson and Abbrederis were an especially common pairing on standard downs -- particularly because the Badgers' offense was so good passing downs were a rarity, but more because it was easier for Abbrederis to find space when the offense was playing to stop Montee Ball as well as stop the pass. Abbrederis saw fewer than one of every five targets on passing downs. That number might not go up too much-- the Badgers will be far more likely to use three or more wideouts on passing downs or go to Ball or James White out of the backfield -- but an increase is in store, as Abbrederis figures to be the first option on most long designed pass plays.
But those standard downs will be the key if Abbrederis is to maintain his performance from last season. Montee Ball will be drawing so much attention at the line of scrimmage that O'Brien and Abbrederis could be able to work a similar game to what Wilson and Toon did last fall, catching opposing teams with eight in the box and exploiting it. That could either be via the downfield pass (usually off play action), a play that should utilize Abbrederis's speed perfectly, as well as with quick passes designed to catch a defense selling out for the run. That will be the main question for Abbrederis -- can he add "possession receiver" to his repertoire along with being a deep threat?
Luckily, there will be options to take the pressure off Abbrederis, particularly on passing downs when a second or third option is necessary. With a redshirt freshman suiting up opposite Abbrederis in Jordan Fredrick , it will be important for both Jacob Pedersen and Montee Ball to provide reliable non-wideout passing options.
Multiple times last season we heard Bret Bielema praise Pedersen nearly beyond belief; calling him the most talented tight end he's worked with. This is no faint praise -- Bielema has coached at least one NFL tight end every season since he's been at UW: Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks (Bielema coached all three at once, even!) have all seen NFL action as well as Beckum's predecessor Owen Daniels.
And sure, Pedersen was fine last season -- 30 catches for 356 yards on 41 targets, a workmanlike 8.7 yards per target as one of the few consistently shallow options in Wisconsin's high-flying offense. He more than has the size to improve -- at 6'4", 237 pounds he's an imposing figure to most defenses and he gives O'Brien that big possession target he'll need on high-pressure passing downs. Perhaps Kendricks provides the model? He hauled in 29 catches for 356 yards in 2009 before becoming one of Scott Tolzien's favorite targets and racking up 663 yards on 43 catches in 2010. Such a progression would mean the Badger offense is working like the well-oiled machine Paul Chryst left behind.
Let's not forget about Ball's potential impact out of the backfield. Ball notched 24 receptions (34 targets) for 306 yards, picking up a sharp nine yards per target. He wasn't used more simply because the threat of him running out of the backfield was too much -- on standard downs he only saw targets on 7.3% of passes, a number that jumps to 16.5% in passing downs. The Badgers' offense may not be quite so prolific at all times this season as it was in 2011, leading to more passing downs and potentially more opportunities to see Ball work as a receiver as well as a rusher.
Finally, we come to The Rest. The Badgers will spend their cupcake non-conference schedule working through The Rest of their receiving corps, headed by redshirt freshman starter Jordan Fredrick as well as sophomore Kenzel Doe, redshirt sophomore Chase Hammond (also the name of a golf course in Michigan) and redshirt junior Jeff Duckworth of The Catch fame. Fredrick has the inside track but just one needs to step up and find a way to put up a season like Kyle Jefferson in 2007 (9.8 yards per target on 41 targets). That's the goal, at least -- the Badgers probably do need one at least one more productive option beyond Abbrederis and Pedersen to keep things running at the 2010 level (the 2011 level is beyond even my wildest dreams).
Although it's a group that rarely gets much publicity outside the People's Republic of Madison, the Badgers have typically featured a strong group of receivers under Bret Bielema -- and, it must be mentioned, Paul Chryst. Those returning this season are all Chryst's boys, though, and if Paul Myerberg's excellent preview of the Badgers' season is trustworthy (and it usually is) Matt Canada's offense shouldn't require too much of a transition. Danny O'Brien's entrance can't replace Russell Wilson's exit, but he should provide more than enough under center to allow Wisconsin to feature yet another efficient group of pass catchers in 2012.