The Wisconsin Badgers’ 2018 roster boasts a deep and talented group of wide receivers, potentially making it one of the most dynamic in recent memory.
This spring camp, however, three of the four receivers penciled in to be major contributors—Quintez Cephus, Kendric Pryor, and Danny Davis—have been shelved for at least part of the 15 practices that run through April 20.
Cephus and Davis have been ruled out for all of spring due to right leg and abdominal injuries, respectively—the latter’s official status downgraded from earlier this spring. Pryor practiced the first week but has since missed practices due to a left leg injury.
For that matter, redshirt freshmen Cade Green and Emmet Perry (both left leg), redshirt sophomore Adam Krumholz (right leg), and true freshman early enrollee Taj Mustapha (left leg) have missed chunks of the seven spring practices.
That may show a thin receiving corp on paper, but the depleted numbers have allowed those available—like junior A.J. Taylor, redshirt sophomore Jack Dunn, and some fresher faces like Aron Cruickshank and Sam DeLany—to gain some extra reps and continue to develop.
“Yeah, we’re young right now,” Taylor said of the younger receivers. “Not a lot of them have a lot experience, so at this point it’s growing. You can see them growing, you can see them starting to catch on. Plays are still running together a little bit for them, but stuff’s starting to click.”
For Dunn, who played in eight games last season, the added time running plays has allowed him to move around and gain experience at the different wide receiver spots.
“I’ve been moving a round playing a lot of ‘X’ in addition to what I normally do, which is the ‘Z’ and in the slot,” Dunn said on Tuesday, “so I’m kind of learning new things, getting all over the place, which is really good because the more experience that I can have in different positions, the more I can do.
“So far, I think everything has gone really well, I’m just trying to be more consistent every day and stack good days on top of each other. Being great is just being consistently good every day, so I’m trying to kind of get to that point.”
Dunn has seen his reps in practice dramatically increase with those who played on the field last season—Cephus, Davis, Pryor, and Krumholz—unavailable.
On Tuesday, Green, Mustapha, and Perry all returned to practice in a limited fashion, but from the opportunities seen early in this spring, Taylor has seen development from the 5’7, 173-pound walk-on from Madison Edgewood.
“He’s always been a good athlete,” Taylor said. “You can tell he’s working, you can tell he’s grinding, but like it’s clicking for them, it’s clicking for him. He’s starting to get a lot more comfortable with the offense since he’s been doing so much; he’s got a lot of different roles and he’s been taking them on very well.”
Dunn knows the more chances he receives with those on the sideline unable to practice, the more he can improve.
“Guys go down, obviously we want them in there—we want to get better as a unit—but guys have to step up whenever they’re called on. So guys go down, I get to go in there, I get more reps, and it’s really just a chance for me to show what I can do and keep getting better on whatever I want to focus on each and every day.”
The added exposure and hard work paid off for Dunn during one practice in particular prior to spring break. On March 20, reporters saw Dunn haul in four would-be touchdown catches in team and red-zone drills.
Yes, it was just one spring practice, but the rewards of a good day can mean a lot.
“It’s huge for confidence because you can come in and work really harder in the off-season every day, work really hard during practice, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to build confidence when you’re not making those big plays,” Dunn said. “So when you actually get a chance to go out there and kind make a play or two that people around you recognize as being a good play, it kind of just boosts your confidence and helps you kind of confirm what you already know, that you can go out and make those plays and show it to everybody else so they know as well.
“I think as much as having confidence in yourself, it helps other people around you have confidence in you as well, so I think it’s huge in that respect.”
Elsewhere among the young group of receivers, Mustapha and Cruickshank showed some early potential and enrolled early in January to get a head start.
Mustapha reeled in some catches before missing the March 22 practice before spring break. Cruickshank has made some receptions through seven sessions while displaying the speed that was seen on his high school highlight tapes.
“He’s adjusting well. He’s a quick kid, really fast,” Taylor said of Cruickshank. “ I think the biggest thing is just for him to just learn the plays, learn the concept of the offense, and not just exactly what route to do, but how to make the route come to life, as [wide receivers coach Ted] Gilmore would say. You can definitely see he’s starting to learn and he’s growing, but it’s just going to take time.”
Like Taylor, Dunn touted Cruickshank’s speed, calling his teammate “fast as heck.” Now it’s just a matter of harnessing it.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone on the team that’s as fast as he is,” Dunn said. “He’s quick as can be, so I think once he learns how to take advantage of that quickness, it’s going to be real tough for people to stick with him, stop him.”
Entering college early, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native admitted there has been an adjustment period both in the classroom and in learning Wisconsin’s playbook.
“It’s been going well now,” Cruickshank said, noting that he sees himself working the ‘Z’ receiver position and in the slot. “Before, the first three installs, I was kind of lost because I was like, wow, there are so many plays thrown at me, but now I go the help of my teammates, the receiving corp, and coach Gilmore. I go see him every once in a while, go over some plays, go over the film, so it’s been going good so far. Once I keep doing that, I should be OK.”
Taylor putting in extra work in Madison, on the beach
With Cephus and now Davis out for the spring with Pryor still out as of Tuesday’s practice, Taylor continues to work as one of the first-team receivers. He put in extra work after the April 3 session, catching balls on the jugs machine and some punts alongside Dunn and Cruickshank.
“Whatever it is to take me to the top,” Taylor said. “I mean, I’m trying to be the best receiver, so I’m going to be out here working and grinding whenever I can to just get better, even if it’s just catching jugs, catching punts or kickoffs to just be the best at whatever I’m doing and detailing everything up.”
Last season, Taylor was second on the team in receptions (31) and tied for second in touchdown catches (five). His eight-reception, 105-yard performance against Miami in the Orange Bowl included a 16-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
During spring break last week, Taylor was able to take in the beaches of San Diego with Hornibrook, though there were was some work involved in the five-day stay in California.
Hornibrook and Taylor trained with quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr., with Taylor also working with former NFL receiver Lance Moore. Taylor also mentioned they had a “little private session” and also worked out with other people.
“It was good experience,” Taylor said. “I learned a lot about the next level and just kind of what it takes to get to the top.”
According to Taylor, it was Hornibrook who initiated the trip out to California.
“He told all the receivers, but unfortunately they couldn’t make it because stuff’s going on, but I decided I wanted to go,” Taylor said. “I had a $1,000 of SkyMiles and a Delta flight, so I was like, I might as well use it for that. It was going to expire soon.”
The brief excursion paid dividends, allowing Taylor to not feel too sluggish coming back from the break. He also brought back a lesson to be applied moving forward.
“This spring, it’s just more about just having a mindset to win whenever I come out,” Taylor said. “There are times where I’ll mess up, and I also got to be able to be mentality strong—when I do mess up, to just shove it and just keep working for the next play.”