Wisconsin's 2014 season may very well be defined by its ability to replace a pair of all-time Badger greats. Defensively, Chris Borland is gone. On offense, Jared Abbrederis is as well (James White would leave a sizable gap, too, if it wasn't for the presence of Melvin Gordon).
Abbrederis' story was five years in the making, beginning with a walk-on, scout-team quarterback who ultimately left UW as the program's the all-time receptions leader. Borland's loss is undeniably severe, but the Badgers have several players with at least varying levels of in-game experience in Joe Schobert, Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter.
With the wide receivers, though, the returning players never separated from one another last year to create a complement to Abbrederis. Even approaching the Capital One Bowl, head coach Gary Andersen was still looking for help opposite the All-Big Ten standout.
"We want to be able to do some things different, and we need to do things different in the bowl game," Andersen said. "I hope there are some other receivers that are going to step up and, if they're open, make some plays as we go through what's going to be basically a month of practices."
Now that Abbrederis has moved on to the next level, the time has come for this group under wide receivers coach Chris Beatty to elevate their respective games to alleviate the pressure off of another potentially powerful running game.
|SPRING DEPTH CHART
|Boynton Beach, Fla.
*Jordan was practicing at defensive back during bowl practices and may play there in 2014.
Main question: Who will step out of Abbrederis' shadow to become the main receiving target(s)?
Anyone who's paid just brief attention to Wisconsin's offense over the past couple of years has noticed a lack of steady receiver production aside from Abbrederis. Jeff Duckworth is also gone, as his ability to make those once-in-a-lifetime catches you'll never forget. Abbrederis had nearly 2.5 times the amount of receptions compared to the rest of the receiving corp combined, and he also wholly provided the group's touchdowns.
The group will have a returning Reggie Love, who redshirted during the 2013 season after suffering a deep bone bruise in his left knee during summer practices. Love has taken a positive route following the injury, noting how it forced him to work on fundamentals he never learned in high school, where he played just one year of football.
Who will challenge Joel Stave at quarterback?
Spring practices start March 5. Let's begin our position-by-position previews with the most important, particularly in light of last year: the quarterbacks.
"I've been working on my releases off the line, working on the top of my routes, a lot of things I had problems with last year," Love said. "I think I've improved significantly with those areas. I think I'm in good shape."
Jordan Fredrick, who last season displayed above-average run-blocking skills, told UWBadgers.com during bowl prep that he hoped "to definitely hone and focus on getting better in the passing game so I can be a way bigger factor next year with Abby gone." Also noted in that article is Fredrick's desire to not have his 4-yard touchdown reception in the 2012 Rose Bowl be defined as the best play of his career.
A highly-touted recruit who many thought could break out his first year in the program, Robert Wheelwright struggled a bit with confidence but has used his bowl preparation as a springboard for next season. The 6'2, 198-pound receiver will be needed this year without Abbrederis on the field and in his ear with advice.
Before suffering a gruesome knee injury against South Carolina, Alex Erickson emerged in summer camp to break into the two-deep, and he was receiving more reps on the field throughout the season.
I'm missing my personal knee protector now that I'm back at school pic.twitter.com/iTCy0RETpb
— Alex Erickson (@ericksona86) January 22, 2014
Will there be others who surprise, or will one of the aforementioned receivers elevate his game this spring to become a contributing leader of the group?
"We want to create competition at the wide receiver position, and the young men in our program are working very hard to get themselves on the field," Andersen said during his National Signing Day press conference on Feb. 5.
"They're making strides. But we need to get that solidified with good numbers there, some young men that are going to expect themselves to come in here and compete at a high level."