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Wisconsin football preview 2016: Robert Wheelwright, wide receivers prepare for increased roles

Gone is Alex Erickson, who's now trying to make his name in the NFL. How will the Badgers receivers impact this year's squad?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a season in which the Wisconsin Badgers had more pass attempts than in any other year, this crop of receivers could have their time to be the difference maker in 2016.

In Corey Clement’s absence, Joel Stave and Bart Houston attempted 419 passes, 77 of the 252 completions caught by senior Alex Erickson. The former walk-on had been the feature receiver ever since the departure of Jared Abbrederis and in his final season. His 77 receptions for 978 yards more than doubled the second highest receiver in both categories.

But change is inevitable, and this year's receivers will have to carry the torch. The first player on the docket is Robert Wheelwright.

Although he played in just nine games due to injury, Wheelwright still tied for the lead in touchdown receptions (four) and has high expectations coming into this year. The 6’3, 207-pound Wheelwright has the physical tools necessary to succeed and expose defenses preparing for Wisconsin’s signature ground and pound offense.

Around him is a still relatively unproven cast, even with players like George Rushing and Reggie Love, who both saw game time two years ago. However, Rushing scored two touchdowns in the Badgers spring game and could be poised for a breakout season. Redshirt junior Jazz Peavy also has big play ability after averaging 13.4 yards per reception last year, and is in line to be a starter opposite Wheelwright.

Leaders at the position (2015 stats)

Robert Wheelwright: 32 receptions, 416 receiving yards, four touchdowns

Jazz Peavy: 20 receptions, 268 receiving yards, zero touchdowns

Reggie Love: four receptions, 55 receiving yards

George Rushing: one reception, 10 receiving yards

Returning Players

Robert Wheelwright (SR), Jazz Peavy (RS JR), Reggie Love (RS SR), George Rushing (JR), Krenwick Sanders (RS SO), Peter Roy (RS SO), Ricky Finco (RS SO), Henry Houden (RS FR -- presumed)


Alex Erickson

Andrew James (not on the roster)

Jordan Frederick

A.J. Jordan

Additions to the position

Austin Weyenberg

A.J. Taylor (Kansas City, Mo.)

Quintez Cephus (Macon, Ga.)

Kendric Pryor (Flossmoor, Ill.)

Adam Krumholz (Stoughton, Wis.)

Jack Popp (Mequon, Wis.)

X-Factor: Robert Wheelwright

I said it last year and I’ll say it again, this time even more emphatically: With Erickson gone, Wheelwright has the opportunity to stand at the helm of this relatively unproven unit. The Columbus, Oh. native has gone public with his goal of breaking receiving records for the Badgers, and will be a massive x-factor not only for the receiving core, but for whichever quarterback is named the starter.

In 2015, after injuries diminished Wisconsin’s running attack, the offense was exposed through its inconsistent passing game. The Badgers can’t afford to be as reliant on their tailbacks this time around, though Clement and a more experienced offensive line return for 2016. Last year, Wheelwright was ready to claim the No. 2 receiver position. Before his injury suffered against Illinois on Oct. 24, he caught 28 passes and provided a great complement to Erickson in what may have been the closest dynamic duo at the position since Nick Toon and Abbrederis in 2011.

While he did statistically finish second on the team in receiving yards and third in receptions, he didn’t come close to keeping pace with Erickson due to his injury. Provided he maintains good health, Wheelwright is poised to produce top receiver numbers and prove himself throughout the course of Wisconsin’s daunting schedule. The senior has a high ceiling, and I don’t expect him to disappoint.

Likely starters: Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy

Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore mentioned that the two starting receiver positions were Wheelwright and Peavy's to lose. Peavy caught 20 passes last season, and has been steadily improving each year. This season, the former NFL assistant coach wants to see consistency former Wisconsin standout receivers have shown:

"Establishing himself as a guy that's an every-down player," Gilmore said when asked about what he's looking for in Peavy leading up to the season.

"Establishing himself as a guy that can make those catches, that can be consistent. Hey, you talk about Rob, you talk about Jazz, I would like to see one of them establish themselves as the go-to guy. Things like that, taking the next step."

"Jazz in particular, when something does go bad, getting stronger mentally and moving on to that next play and flushing it. So that's his challenge this spring, and I think if he gets stronger in that area alone, it's going to help all the other things."

Behind them lies George Rushing and Reggie Love. Both had impressed during practices back in March and April, but Rushing in particular had a big finish in the spring game, catching two touchdown passes from redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

"George has worked this spring," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said after the glorified scrimmage. "I think that this day, he had a couple noticeable plays. But I think the last three of four, he had his best practices. He finished the spring on a higher note."

Krenwick Sanders' name could also be in the mix for significant playing time, though he battled some injuries during the spring. Look to see how Gilmore and Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst implement true freshman A.J. Taylor in the offense, who could earn early playing time.

"He's a young man that possesses a lot of abilities," Gilmore said on National Signing Day. "He can do a lot of things for you, whether if that's as a returner, whether that's as a running back or as a receiver. He's a guy who's really good in his hands. He's a really intelligent man on the field, off the field. He gets it. He sees the big picture.

"In saying that, I think that will give him a chance to play as a freshman."

[Update 8:00 p.m. CT -- added the class of 2016 additions to the preview. Appreciate the notice from B5Q readers on the omission.]

[Update 5:55 p.m. CT, 7/23 -- with new roster released, added walk-ons Jack Popp and Adam Krumholz to the list of new receivers]