The Wisconsin Badgers entered the 2014 season with the task of replacing Jared Abbrederis, who had accounted for over 40 percent of the team's yards through the air the year before. Wisconsin now faces a similar challenge two years later, with this void coming in the form of Alex Erickson.
Erickson snatched the baton from Abbrederis and brilliantly ran with it for the last two seasons, accumulating 1,750 receiving yards despite being part of a passing attack that was, to put it nicely, inconsistent. Erickson was the model of consistency in 2015, logging over 66 yards in 10 of 13 contests. What made those yards even more important was when they were gained; often on third down to move the chains. Replacing Erickson's general production is one thing; finding a reliable target to extend drives will be another.
The difference between 2016 and 2014 is the players that return. When Abbrederis departed, he took the team's next three leading receivers with him. Erickson has been far more generous, leaving most of his supporting cast to pick up the slack. One of those pieces is tight end Troy Fumagalli (28 receptions for 313 yards) and another is running back Dare Ogunbowale (36 receptions for 299 yards), but there are noteworthy players at the receiver position as well.
Leaders at position (2015 stats)
Robert Wheelwright: 32 receptions for 416 yards and four touchdowns
Jazz Peavy: 20 receptions for 268 yards
Robert Wheelwright (Sr.)
Jazz Peavy (R-Jr.)
Reggie Love (R-Sr.)
George Rushing (Jr.)
Krenwick Sanders (Jr.)
Additions to position
Andrew James (R-Fr.)
Quintez Cephus (Macon, Ga.)
Kendric Pryor (Hazel Crest, Ill. -- might play CB)
A.J. Taylor (Kansas City, Mo.)
"Way too early" prediction for starting lineup
Both showed signs of brilliance during their 2015 campaigns. Wheelwright was far more consistent, gaining over 47 yards in six of the nine games he participated in. Peavy appeared more in flashes, coming almost out of nowhere and giving a solid effort against Nebraska before truly breaking out later in the year with 88 yards and what should have been a game-winning touchdown against Northwestern.
The two complement each other very well and both possess the ability to come through in the high-pressure situations that Erickson was almost always targeted in the last two seasons. Wheelwright has shown the ability to use his big body to out-muscle defenders and come down with 50/50 balls. This should make him one of the better red-zone threats that Wisconsin has had at receiver in recent years. Peavy fits the finesse mold, displaying the quickness to break defenders off on comeback and out-routes. That skill set and route tree has traditionally been heavily utilized by the Badgers, especially on third down.
X-factor: George Rushing
Many receivers will get chances to prove themselves this year, but my bet is on Rushing to emerge as the third option. Of the returning receivers, he's the best suited to stretch the field. Rushing was called on in his first career game, against LSU, to keep the defense honest with fly routes and was able to do just that. None of the passes were completed, and he has not done much to this point in that regard, but he was still able to gain separation and put pressure on the defense.
That ability could be extremely valuable given Wheelwright and Peavy's success with intermediate routes. Rushing can help extend the defense off of those shorter routes while hopefully hitting some home runs when the defense continues to play up at the line. Rushing probably won't have the most impressive numbers at the end of the year -- Wisconsin's third receiver rarely does -- but he has the potential to make a major impact on the offense.