Ahead of the season, one of the bigger question marks with the Wisconsin Badgers was transfer redshirt sophomore Will Pauling.
To the outside, Pauling was an under-the-radar transfer who had limited playing time at Cincinnati due to a redshirt year and an injury, and his experience differed from starters Bryson Green and Chimere Dike.
But, to those that watched Pauling from spring ball, it took one route in practice for me to understand he was a special type of talent.
Holding a smaller frame at 5’10, 187 pounds, Pauling moves with a different level of fluidity out of the spot, and that explosiveness off the line of scrimmage stood out on his very first rep.
Within a short matter of time, it was clear that Pauling was going to be the team’s top receiver, which is why I predicted that the Cincinnati transfer would lead the team in most, if not all, receiving categories this season.
Fast-forward to the end of the season and Pauling has paced the team with 64 catches for 675 yards and three touchdowns, which is 300 yards more and over double the receptions of the No. 2 receiver: Bryson Green.
How has Pauling developed into such a special talent in the slot?
“Well, I think it’s a savviness, it’s a quickness, it’s a strength that he brings,” head coach Luke Fickell said about his top receiver. And he’s still a young football player, right? I mean, this is really a sophomore year, and I think we’ve seen a lot of the growth from him throughout the entire season, and he got a lot of catches, there’s been some space created, but obviously he has to do that in a lot of ways himself, too. I’ve really been impressed with his growth.”
Pauling has struggled with drops this season, which has been his lone issue, as the top wideout is tied for first on the team with Skyler Bell with seven drops.
But, Pauling has looked to make that up with high volume and a 55.6 percent contested catch rate, on top of all the special things he does on the field.
That led to a strong eight-catch, 79-yard performance where Pauling earned 11 targets before exiting with an injury late in the fourth quarter. His 11 targets were, by far, the most on the team, and they came with zero drops.
Head coach Luke Fickell acknowledged the drop issues, while pointing to Pauling’s confidence and the connection with quarterback Tanner Mordecai as key reasons for the success this season.
“I think earlier, maybe in the year, he had some catches and things like that. I think if you asked him, he’d say probably he had too many drops,” Fickell said. And you’ve seen that growth throughout the entire season. And last Saturday night, I think, was probably one of his best. I mean, if he touched the ball, he caught the thing, I think he had the one deep one that would have been an amazing catch. But I think there’s a confidence level that he has in himself. There’s a confidence level that Tanner has in him and the offense has in him, and we try to do some things to create some space and give him some freedom.”
Pauling has been an elite option for the Badgers, who have looked to rely on the slot receiver in key moments, such as third downs, to move the chains.
With the shift in offense to a more balanced approach, as well as injuries to Braelon Allen, Pauling has taken over the mantle as the team’s best offensive player.
The best part? Pauling still has two more years of eligibility and is likely to use at least one before declaring for the NFL Draft, given his size and frame concerns that usually keep slot receivers in college for all four years.
His status is currently unknown for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, as Pauling exited last week’s game with an injury, but head coach Luke Fickell said that whoever can play will play, given the importance of the game.
Regardless, it’s been a great season for Pauling, who has 64 catches on the season, tied for fifth-most in program history for a single year, while also hauling in 25 third down catches, five more than any other Big Ten receiver.