MADISON — It’s an age-old cliché. Everyone who has been involved in or covered football has uttered these three words at some point in their careers.
Next man up.
Injuries, suspensions, playing inconsistencies creep up for all teams, some earlier than others. Certain players on the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers will have opportunities to step up for those reasons during Friday’s season opener against Western Kentucky (8 p.m CT, ESPN).
From the outside looking in, the position most affected by changes heading into the season is wide receiver. Quintez Cephus and Danny Davis are both suspended from the team stemming from an April incident where the former currently faces two felony sexual assault charges.
With Cephus out indefinitely and Davis suspended for the first two games of the year, one commonly-known cliché goes hand in hand with another that has emerged and is unique to Wisconsin over the past 28 seasons. Enter Adam Krumholz and Jack Dunn, two walk-ons who found themselves in the two-deep when Wisconsin released its Week 1 depth chart on Sunday.
“Those guys, they’ve been out there in big situations for us already, and we know that they will step up to the occasion,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said on Monday. “They’re smart, they know what to do, how to do it, they’re more than athletic enough, so it’ll be a great opportunity for them.”
With injuries to the receiving corp during the spring—Cephus was out for most of those practices, Davis was out completely, and injuries struck many of the other receivers for at least portions of March and April—Dunn received plenty of reps.
Krumholz was among the group requiring rest after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, which also required a screw to be placed in there.
“I didn’t become really healthy until the beginning of summer training,” Krumholz told B5Q on Monday, “but now during fall camp I’ve been feeling really great, so [I’m] excited for that.”
The wide receiver position at Wisconsin has been flush with walk-ons who have stepped up in recent memory. There are current Cincinnati Bengals wideout Alex Erickson and Burlsworth Trophy winner Jared Abbrederis from the past five years, both of whom emerged when injuries or other circumstances allowed them to step up and lead the Badgers in receptions for multiple seasons.
Before them, Luke Swan and Paul Hubbard were starters from 2006–07. David Braun, like Dunn a Madison Edgewood graduate, played in 38 career games from 1999–2002 and stepped in when called upon at the position.
For Krumholz, his objectives were simple heading into fall camp.
“[Being] noticed by the team, the coaches, and gaining that respect before the season started was a huge goal for me,” Krumholz said. “Just playing every day extremely hard, that shows a lot and I wanted to give myself opportunities to make plays.”
From nearby Stoughton, Krumholz enters his third year in the program. He played in six games last season, seeing time on both special teams and at wide receiver, and said he is feeling more comfortable.
“Everything seems to be slowed down, and I notice a lot more individual concepts that the receiver in my position has to do, so that’s really fun seeing that when I play on the field.”
With the move up to the two-deep, Krumholz believes there will be some change of roles.
“I’m sure it’s changed a little bit,” Krumholz said. “I’m expected to make more of an impact coming in on this Friday, so [I] just got to be ready and seize the moment.”
The 6’1, 194-pounder has mostly played the “X” wide receiver position, though he noted the coaching staff wants him to play more of the “Z” and has been practicing that for the past few sessions. The “X” is commonly referred to as a split end, while the “Z” is typically known as the flanker.
For Dunn, who played in eight games last year in similar fashion to Krumholz, opportunities arise not just as a receiver but also as the No. 1 punt returner on the depth chart. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard—who still holds the school records for number of career punt returns and yardage along with single-season punt return yards—said his advice to the redshirt sophomore starts with reeling in the punt.
“It’s really the same thing I would tell him in practices: the cleaner you are with the catch, the more consistent you are with the catch, you can transition your eyes downfield faster,” Leonhard says on Tuesday. “He’s done a great job of that in his time here. He focuses on it, he puts a lot of time into it, so that’s going to give himself a chance here to make a play for us.”
Rudolph mentioned confidence as one of his specific callouts about both Krumholz and Dunn, which the offensive coordinator mentioned can translate to changing the speed at which a player performs.
To Leonhard, himself a former walk-on who has seen his defensive backs face the two receivers, the first thing he mentioned was how they compete.
“They just go out there and they flat-out compete. It matters to them,” Leonhard said. “They want to be in a bigger role than they currently are all the time, so they’re always pushing that, knowing that they’ve both been through this and seen through the course of the season how things happen, whether it’s injuries, whether it’s consistency in how guys play, things change through the course of a year and they’re guys that understand that and just work.
“Obviously, they’ve found themselves in a little bit different situation than maybe we thought they would have been a couple of weeks ago.”
Tight ends working without Zander Neuville
With redshirt senior Zander Neuville out for Friday’s game, Wisconsin listed redshirt junior Kyle Penniston as the No. 1 tight end on the depth chart and redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson as No. 2.
Neuville was more of a run blocker as a significant contributor to Wisconsin’s rushing success last year. After suffering a season-ending ACL tear in the regular-season finale against Minnesota, the former walk-on from Waupaca, Wis., did not practice during the spring. He participated sparingly in fall camp practices open to the media after suffering a right leg injury.
Though Neuville will not play against Western Kentucky, Penniston doesn’t believe his role changes within the offense.
“Obviously, I went through spring ball without Zander and Zander’s kind of been on and off during this camp, so I’ve kind of prepared myself through those two groupings of practices,” Penniston said on Monday. “So I don’t think there’s anything I have to go out-of-body for, but definitely Zander does some really good things and things that I could learn from, so I’m going to try to put those on display Friday.”
Neuville’s return date is still unknown, though Rudolph thinks “sooner than later” and noted how his redshirt senior was “really excited” this week. He also explained to reporters on Monday that without Neuville, Penniston had to step up in leading the tight end group.
“I think in leading that group, it also put a heightened attention to his performance and how he went about doing things, and I think that’s been really good for him,” Rudolph said. “He’s embraced that just as well, so I think that will help us in the long run and same thing, we got to do things that help highlight their talents in this game.”
A 2018 John Mackey Award watch list candidate who caught seven passes for 56 yards and a touchdown last season, Penniston’s presence in the passing game could grow with Cephus and Davis suspended. Though he put together an extremely solid fall camp during practices open to the media, he told B5Q he does not believe there is any extra pressure to supplement the aerial attack, noting various weapons in the offense like wide receivers A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor, Krumholz, and Dunn, along with the tight ends and running backs.
“Like I said, there’s nothing really out-of-body. As long as we stick to our guns and kind of what we do well, I think we’ll be just fine.”