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Wisconsin forced to rely on group of young receivers in 2017

Injuries have forced youth into the forefront.

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NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2017 season, the Wisconsin Badgers were set on leaning heavily on a pair of senior wide receivers while hoping to get contributions from a young group of talented contributors.

Seniors Jazz Peavy and George Rushing were tabbed as the team’s top two wideouts, but through the first nine games of the season, neither has had much of an impact, requiring the Badgers to lean on a mix of sophomores and freshmen who, prior to 2017, had combined for a total of seven receptions.

Rushing has yet to play this season due to injury and Peavy has only managed five receptions while dealing with an ankle injury. Peavy has also taken a leave of absence from the team to deal with some personal matters, and his return is in question.

Meanwhile, sophomores Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor have taken advantage of their newly expanded roles.

Cephus currently leads the Badgers with 30 receptions for 501 yards and six touchdowns, compared to the four receptions for 94 yards he recorded in 2016 before becoming one of Alex Hornibrook’s top weapons.

However, Cephus’s status for the remainder of the season is up in the air after he suffered a leg injury while being rolled up on late in Wisconsin’s win over Indiana. He is officially listed as out indefinitely, but is widely expected to miss the remainder of the season. We should know more once he meets with a doctor later this week.

With Cephus sidelined, Taylor, who is third on the team with 14 receptions for 231 receiving yards and two touchdowns, becomes the team’s No. 1 wide receiver.

Along with the bump up in the depth chart for Taylor comes the promotion of two redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor true freshman, Danny Davis.

Davis, a four-star recruit out of high school, currently sits fourth on the team in receptions (eight) and yards (170) and has added one touchdown.

While his counterparts on the receiving corps have been at it all season, Pryor just recently returned after missing the first four games of the season due to injuries sustained in a moped accident. He suffered a broken nose, a fracture above his left eye, and needed several stitches to close a wound in the back of his head after swerving to avoid a stopped car and his face hit the pavement.

Since his return on Oct. 14 against Purdue, Pryor has six receptions for 80 yards, and he showed off his athletic ability this past Saturday against Indiana when he came back to the sidelines and was able to get a foot down on a 14-yard reception to secure a first down on 3rd-and-2, setting up Jonathan Taylor’s 32-yard rushing touchdown.

Redshirt freshman Jack Dunn has also been elevated to a No. 2 wide receiver spot behind Davis. Dunn has appeared in five games this season, but has yet to record a reception.

It’s clear that Wisconsin possesses a stable of talented, albeit inexperienced wide receivers and no matter how inexperienced they have been, they have been used frequently in 2017. Through the first nine games of the season, the Badgers have completed 63 of 109 passes to wide receivers (51 percent). In 2016, they completed 202 passes in 14 games with 96 going to wide receivers (48 percent).

The fact that Wisconsin is completing more passes to wide receivers in 2017 shouldn’t be surprising, as Wisconsin graduated running back Dare Ogunbowale, who was fourth on the team in receptions in 2016. Also, Hornibrook isn’t splitting time in a two-quarterback system anymore, allowing him to gain more of a working relationship with the guys lined up out wide at the line of scrimmage.

Wisconsin’s run game has been more successful in 2017 as well, with Big Ten leading rusher Taylor in the backfield, forcing teams to load the box more and allowing the passing lanes to be less crowded.

Wisconsin has not seen production from a group of young receivers in quite some time, as most Badger receivers have historically come into their own later in their careers. If these young receivers can continue to learn on the job and develop, Wisconsin should have a well-rounded attack for the remainder of the season and for seasons to come.