The Wisconsin Badgers football program has seen an amazing wave of success since Barry Alvarez took over as head coach in 1990. His tenure in the athletic department shifted perception of Wisconsin athletics and paved the way for current success.
While the landscape of college football has significantly change since 1990, the lifeblood of winning hasn’t.
Recruiting and development are king.
The Badgers have seen tremendous results in developing talent since Alvarez took the reins and laid the blueprint, but recruiting has had areas of prosperity such as offensive line, running back, and linebacker. On the flipside, however, there have also been pockets of the roster that have been more challenging to recruit for.
Within each position though there has been moments of realized potential that create a source of strength on the roster based on the fruits of a singular recruiting class.
For example, in the 2021 recruiting class the Badgers currently have two four-star offensive lineman, and are heavily involved with five-star offensive lineman Nolan Rucci as well. If all three prospects were to sign with Wisconsin that could potentially be a major moment in the trajectory of the position, and ultimately alter the complexion of the offense as a whole.
With that as a launching off point, I began to wonder which classes in the past 30 years had the best collection of players in a singular position group.
Today we look more closely at the wide receiver position.
Top group: 2007 recruiting class
I’m going to preface this choice by saying that Lee Evans is unequivocally the best receiver to play for the Badgers since 1990, therefore making the 1999 receiver class a very real possibility for the top spot. However, Evans was the only contributor at the position from his class, and with the premise of the series focused on the collective group success, the 2007 class won out. Of note, Lance Young went on to have a pretty productive career at Iowa State after his commitment to UW from the 1999 recruiting class.
With that out of the way, the trio of David Gilreath, Kyle Jefferson, and Nick Toon reigned supreme in terms of overall quality.
Gilreath will forever be immortalized in Wisconsin football lore for his huge opening kickoff return for a touchdown against No. 1 Ohio State to jump start the craziest atmosphere in Camp Randall history.
A standout return man who played immediately as a true freshman, he earned all-conference recognition as a returner throughout his career, as he put together over 3,000 kickoff return yardage and 700 punt return yardage. He was undersized at 5-foot-9, but his 4.4 speed made him a threat anytime he had the ball in his hands, whether that be as a return man or working from the slot.
Gilreath was not only a great returner, but he also made an imprint as a slot receiver. This past season his 1,077 receiving yards just fell out of the top-25 career receiving yardage leaders, but he was the leading pass catcher out of any wide receiver in 2008 with over 500 yards. Gilreath also added 442 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns over the course of his four years.
A versatile playmaker for the Badgers from 2007 to 2010, Gilreath would go on to be picked up as an undrafted free agent and stuck around NFL circles from 2011 to 2015 with multiple teams.
Along with Gilreath, Nick Toon was also a highly productive player for the Badgers.
A former four-star recruit out of Middleton, and the son of former Wisconsin legend Al Toon, he had high expectations to live up to. After a redshirt season on campus, Toon quickly flashed his abilities with over 250 yards receiving as a redshirt freshman. He would go on to have a breakout sophomore season with 805 yards and four touchdowns, and an injury riddled 2010 season with 459 receiving yards and three touchdowns as he battled a nagging turf toe injury.
A bigger target at 6-foot-4, he provided a reliable red zone threat for the Badgers, something that really shined through during his senior season when he was a second team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches and reeled in 926 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Having thrown to Toon back in the high school camp setting, he was a big-time player who immediately jumped out on the field. The tandem he formed with Jared Abbrederis will go down as one of the better duos in the history of Wisconsin football.
Overall, Toon ranks No. 4 in terms of career receiving yards with 2,447 yards and 18 touchdowns. A foot injury hurt his draft stock going into the 2012 NFL Draft, as he was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round. He went on to play through the 2015 season in the league, but dealt with injuries throughout that time as well.
Jefferson started his career off strong with over 400 yards receiving as a freshman in 2007, and went into the 2008 season with high hopes. A gruesome hit against Minnesota that resulted in head and neck injuries and require ambulance attention, in one of the more scary scenes at Camp Randall though completely altered the course of his career. Jefferson wound up adding under 300 yards total the final three years on campus, most of which happened in 2008 prior to the injury.
Jefferson was definitely the least impactful player of the three members of the 2007 class, but there is no telling what his career might have looked like if it wasn’t for that injury.
Honorable Mention: 2016 recruiting class
Honorable mention: 2016 recruiting class
The runner-up spot at wide receiver is highly debated. There were a lot of really good options, namely the 1991 class comprised of Lee Deramus (one of my childhood favorites) and Michael London, as well as the 2001 class that brought in Jonathan Orr, Darrin Charles, and lastly Dontez Sanders who eventually wound up playing on the defense. However, Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, and Kendric Pryor from the 2016 group were strong, and wound up taking home second place.
Cephus missed an entire season due to being kicked out of school after a rape allegation (he was later, correctly, reinstated) and another half of a season due to a broken leg, but he was a difference maker while on the field for nearly two seasons. His junior campaign this past year was particularly great with over 900 yards and seven touchdowns receiving. He is one of the best receivers to play at Wisconsin, and there is no telling what more he could have done had he played another full season in Madison, or how the end of the 2017 season could have unfolded with him on the outside.
For his career he totaled almost 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns, good for No. 14 in program history in receiving yardage. Cephus was selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft this past spring by the Detroit Lions after declaring early, and is already turning heads in camp.
Another wide receiver who came in with Cephus was A.J. Taylor. A four-star running back recruit out of high school, Taylor converted to wide receiver and like Cephus earned playing time right away as a freshman. After getting his feet wet that initial season, Taylor took over the slot receiver role in 2017, and came up huge without Cephus for the remainder of 2017 and the 2018 season.
Taylor was a consistent receiving threat for the Badgers over the course of his career, recording around 30 receptions and over 470 yards during both his sophomore and junior seasons. In 2017 he led all wide receivers on the team in receptions, and in 2018 he led the team in receiving yards. An Achilles injury late late last season, and the reemergence of Cephus greatly reduced the statistical impact that he had in 2019, but he was still a key cog in the offense.
Over the course of his four seasons at Wisconsin, Taylor tallied 1,316 yards receiving, and 10 touchdowns. His receiving yardage total landed him in the top-25 of all pass catchers as well at No. 21. Since graduating this past spring, Taylor has recovered from that Achilles injury and recently had a workout with the Green Bay Packers, as he hopes to make a roster in the NFL.
The last wide receiver from the 2016 recruiting class is Kendric Pryor. Unlike Cephus and Taylor though, Pryor redshirted as a true freshman, and is currently a senior on the roster.
A quick athlete out of Illinois, Pryor has been heavily involved in the offense as a receiving threat, but also as a rusher utilizing jet-motion and end-arounds.
One of the top receiving targets returning in 2020 (or for that matter 2021), Pryor will still have another season to add to his impact, and has an opportunity to also leap into the top-25 yardage accumulators in the passing game. Currently, Pryor has 701 yards receiving, only around 400 yards behind Darrin Charles for No. 25 in program history. Additionally he has added 359 rushing yards, and has nine total touchdowns over the course of his first three years of action.
The rest of Pryor’s script is still up in the air, but the accomplishments of Cephus, Taylor, and Pryor as a unit have proven to be vital for the team the these past five seasons. With more production still possible with Pryor, this group took home the second spot due to the complete depth of talent and overall success for all three members of the class.