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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Way-too-early look at wide receivers

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Paul Chryst's pro-style passing attack is back, but who will step up as a consistent receiving threat alongside Alex Erickson?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we're past the Wisconsin Badgers' 2014 season, we can now look to next season -- though summer camp does not start until August and spring practices are but a month away. As the Gary Andersen era officially closed on New Year's Day, B5Q now looks ahead to the program that head coach Paul Chryst will lead in 2015.

Many thought the Badgers' wide receivers -- with the loss of former walk-on and all-time receptions leader Jared Abbrederis -- would struggle to put up anything close to what the Burlsworth Trophy winner did in 2013. In his final season, Abbrederis caught 78 receptions and seven touchdowns. The rest of the receiving corp? 40 catches total.

Fast forward to 2014. Another former walk-on, junior Alex Erickson stepped up to lead the receivers. The Darlington, Wis., native -- who caught only nine passes in 2013 -- reeled in 55 receptions but only three touchdowns. Like the year before, a second threat at wide receiver did not develop, which hampered the passing game. Aside from the 55 catches from Erickson, the rest of the wide receivers caught a total of 39.

Early 2015 Previews

Looking ahead to 2015, Chryst will bring that pro-style passing game seen in the days of Scott Tolzien, Russell Wilson, Nick Toon and the early years of Abbrederis. The 2014 season was one-sided in terms of offensive dimensional output -- Melvin Gordon and the running game accounted for 4,482 yards of offense, more than doubling the 2,082 yards gained through the air. The loss of Gordon and three starting offensive linemen fuels a definitive need for the passing game to regain some positive traction.

What does that mean for Erickson, Jordan Fredrick, Robert Wheelwright and Reggie Love, along with the trio of soon-to-be sophomores in George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders? Can a couple of receivers grab the proverbial brass rings to make an impact next season? How will new wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore (reportedly) mold them? This position group, outside of inside linebackers and offensive line, is -- like last year -- one major area of concern. Yet, there's hints of optimism as 2015 blooms.

2014 leaders

Alex Erickson: 55 receptions, 772 yards, 14.0 yards per catch, 3 touchdowns

Kenzel Doe : 17 receptions, 197 yards, 11.7 yards per catch, 1 touchdown

Returning players

Erickson (RS SR), Jordan Fredrick (RS SR), Wheelwright (JR), Love (RS JR), Jazz Peavy (RS SO), George Rushing (SO), Natrell Jamerson (SO), Krenwick Sanders (SO), Jake Stengel (RS SR), Peter Roy (assuming RS FR), Nick Holicek (assuming RS FR)

Departing players

Doe, Lance Baretz, Connor Cummins, Jamerson (per reports, possibly moving to cornerback but not confirmed)

Additions

Andrew James (Westminster Academy, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

X-Factors: Robert Wheelwright and George Rushing

Wheelwright has the size and the look to be a starter and a legitimate threat as the "X" wide receiver at 6'2, 201 pounds. Former Badgers wide receivers coach Chris Beatty acknowledged Wheelwright, even as a true freshman in 2013, had the second-best route-running skills next to Abbrederis.

However, injuries derailed a promising sophomore campaign in both spring (PCL) and summer (hamstring) camps. It got to the point where Andersen actually told the media that Wheelwright might not make the trip to Houston for the LSU game:

He worked his way back into the two-deep as the season rolled on, including hauling in a 17-yard touchdown pass from Joel Stave in a 34-24 victory against Minnesota -- his only catch of the season. It's a testament to dedication that the former four-star commit worked his way back into the wide receiver rotation in 2014. If he stays healthy for both spring and summer camps, he can make an impact.

The three freshmen in Rushing, Jamerson and Sanders stood out in last season's summer camp, turning heads by making contested catches, but between the three talented receivers, they only caught six receptions total (they also had the same amount of rushing attempts in 2014 as well). All saw the field, however, at times during the season.

Rushing and Jamerson were used mostly in a jet/fly sweep looks. Rushing led the trio with five receptions for 62 yards and five rushes for 33 yards, and received more snaps than Sanders and Jamerson -- the latter appears to be moving to the defensive side of the ball. If he can make the jump from Year 1 to Year 2, Rushing could push for extensive playing time and be another needed threat through the air.

Early prediction for starters: Erickson and Wheelwright

Call it bold, but this is a position group that has more depth and experience to it, and now with Gilmore and Chryst overlooking it. Erickson made the jump in 2013 to 2014 -- who else will make the strides necessary?

As noted above, Wheelwright has the skill to be a factor in the passing game. Staying healthy will be the main factor for him. A combination of Erickson and Wheelwright would be the first consistent, dual-threat receiving targets for a Wisconsin offense since Toon and Abbrederis in 2011 -- Chryst's last year as offensive coordinator. Then you have Rushing and Sanders, who will be in their second year in the program. How they react to Chryst's pro-style offense and Gilmore will determine how many reps they get on the field.

Don't discount the other veteran receivers, though. Fredrick is the best run-blocking receiver Wisconsin has, and he's shown the ability to maintain blocks on the second and third levels of the defense in the running game, as well as spring Erickson on bubble screens. He's shown to be a possession receiver when thrown to, and his presence will help in 2015. Reggie Love started off the season on the right foot with a 45-yard touchdown run against LSU and stayed in the two-deep last season. Can Gilmore mold him further into a bigger threat? Peavy, like Wheelwright, was injured for fall camp. Can he work his way back into the rotation?

Like last year, there are question marks with this group, but with another year of experience under their belt, the seeds are planted for a solid receiving corp.