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2014 Wisconsin football preview: Wide receiver among greatest questions for Badgers

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Jared Abbrederis is gone, and Wisconsin's remaining wide receivers are quite unproven. Who will step up in 2014?

Alex Erickson is expected to be one of Wisconsin's main wide receivers this season.
Alex Erickson is expected to be one of Wisconsin's main wide receivers this season.
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The day was always going to come when Jared Abbrederis was no longer an active member of the Wisconsin Badgers. That's an obvious fact of life, but to UW fans, it always just felt too far off into the future. A future where the second coming of Russell Wilson lines up behind center and the Badgers don't need a star wideout hauling in 50 passes a year in an otherwise run-first offense. A future where solid wide receiver depth is a simple fact, not a pipe dream. A future where Wisconsin's running game is good as ever, but so is the passing game that erases deficits and makes the Badgers' offense once again so wonderfully dynamic.

College football fans who don't support UW also shared this sentiment, frequently placing Abbrederis in the "Wow, he still has eligibility camp?" Personally, I just think they're not paying attention. Alas, that's a digression.

The truth is, Abbrederis was just such a steady, talented performer who when he wasn't torching eventual first-round-draft-pick cornerbacks was risking his body going over the middle (a history of concussions likely cost him a few rounds in the draft) and returning punts on special teams.

This long-winded lede could continue for some time, but here are the facts, and the reason why this lede got this long in the first place: Abbrederis is now gone, in the NFL but unfortunately sidelined by what reports indicate is a torn ACL. In Madison, there are a number of replacements for him, but not one has provided consistent production. In fairness, they never really had to do with Abbrederis doing his thing and the Badgers' frequently having able pass-catchers at tight end and running back. So any rational critiques of this Wisconsin wide receiving group shouldn't be indictments of their talents and skills; they're more about a justifiable concern over who exactly is going to line up and whether they can collectively fill the void left by the most productive Wisconsin wide receiver... ever?

DEPTH CHART: WIDE RECEIVERS
YEAR HT WT REC YDS AVG LONG TD GP HOMETOWN
Kenzel Doe SR 5'8 176 25 182 7.3 19 0 34 Reidsville, N.C.
Jordan Fredrick RS JR 6'4 214 27 302 11.2 20 1 27 Madison, Wis.
Alex Erickson RS SO 6'0 196 9 127 14.1 35 0 15 Darlington, Wis.
Rob Wheelwright SO 6'2 201 2 9 4.5 6 0 12 Columbus, Ohio
Jazz Peavy RS FR 6'0 187 Kenosha, Wis.
Reggie Love RS SO 6'3 214 1 19 19.0 19 0 7 Boynton Beach, Fla.
Reserves: Connor Cummins (RS SR), Lance Baretz (RS JR), Jake Stengel (RS JR)
Freshmen: Natrell JamersonGeorge RushingKrenwick Sanders

As you can see, there isn't much experience behind Kenzel Doe and Jordan Fredrick (the freshmen are just listed alphabetically, as it's just too early to earnestly slot them on the depth chart).

Most to prove

Kenzel Doe. The undersized speedster has shown flashes of explosiveness mainly on special teams, but all of a sudden he's a senior (that's more shocking to me than the whole "wow Abbrederis was at Wisconsin for, like, eight years" thing, but I digress). At Big Ten media days earlier this week and again at UW's own media day Friday, head coach Gary Andersen has praised Doe for his work in the weight room and as a leader among UW's young receivers.

"I've asked him to be a tremendous leader. He's done that," Andersen said Friday. "I've asked him to look at those young receivers and understand that they can help this team and they can help him as a player as he's moved forward. He's done that.

"On a personal standpoint, he's his best as far as weight room, his strength. Kenzel's at the point where we're holding him back in the weight room. He doesn't need to get any stronger. He just needs to go out and play and stay healthy and do what he does."

That's certainly enticing. Doe's explosiveness was seen in the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina on a fourth-quarter, 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Andersen's credited that for lending him some momentum entering the offseason.

As for the other likely starter, Fredrick, there's less to write about. He appeared in all 13 games last season and started five. At 6'4, 214 pounds, he's the biggest UW receiver expected to see significant playing time this season. Having him as a steady contributor on the outside would be huge for whomever starts at quarterback. Fredrick's also an outstanding blocker both at the line and downfield, which should continue earning him playing time.

X-factor

Rob Wheelwright. One of the more intriguing recruits from the class of 2014, Wheelwright played right away as a freshman. The former four-star recruit (by Scout) appeared in 12 games but only caught two passes, mainly because he didn't have many thrown his way. He also suffered a knee injury in December that kept him out of most of spring practice, but at media day on Friday, he seemed confident about breaking out in 2014.

"I'm feeling real confident," Wheelwright said. "I'm feeling like this could be my season to kind of show my talents and kind of be the guy, the playmaker [after] losing Abbrederis and Jeff Duckworth."

Andersen echoed as much at Big Ten media days in Chicago, yet in much fewer words: "It's Robert's time."

Alex Erickson also belongs in this x-factor category, as his similarities to Abbrederis (an in-state receiver who began as a walk-on) have him widely pegged as a main candidate to step up this fall. Erickson suffered a knee injury in the bowl game and missed spring ball after catching nine passes for 127 yards in 13 games. Andersen confirmed Friday that Erickson is now on scholarship.

Rest of position group

The freshmen are the key here. Even despite the loss of two skilled freshmen receivers in Chris Jones (academic) and Dareian Watkins (personal), the trio coming to Madison this fall is very enticing.

George Rushing earned praise from running back Melvin Gordon at Big Ten media days for his hard work and eagerness during summer film sessions. A former Louisville commit, Rushing was praised for his strong hands and route-running skills coming out of Miramar, Florida.

Krenwick Sanders is receiver from Jesup, Georgia, who chose Wisconsin over offers from Florida, Florida State, Georgia (where he was previously committed) and South Carolina, among others. He's another polished freshman who has shown an impressive ability to gain separation from defenders, especially at his size (6'1, 193 pounds).

Natrell Jamerson could be a candidate for slot receiver with his speed (a reported 4.24-second 40-yard dash and 10.6-second 100-meter).

All three of the freshmen will likely get their fair shares of repetitions in camp, especially early on. Earlier this week, Andersen reiterated just how important they will be in helping to replace Abbrederis.

"Two of the three need to get on the airplane and fly to the LSU game for us," Andersen said in reference to the Aug. 30 opener in Houston. Ideally, none of the three would redshirt, giving them the option to continually practice with the team throughout the season and perhaps contribute at various points down the schedule.

Did you know?

Did you know UW's current receivers have a ton of work ahead of them, especially considering the loss of Abbrederis? Yes, you probably do. Hopefully you do, especially if you've read this far. Just in case, here's one last chart to nail this point home.

Career stats: Jared Abbrederis vs. current UW receivers
REC YDS AVG TD GP
Abbrederis 202 3,140 15.5 23 53
UW receivers 64 639 9.4 1 95