Coming into the season, the Wisconsin Badgers earned significant buzz, primarily due to their new-look offense, which featured ‘Air-Raid’ guru Phil Longo as the offensive coordinator, SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai as the new quarterback, and a number of new wideouts to match the style of offense.
Two weeks in, the passing offense is still undergoing its fair share of ups and downs, but there has been one consistent leader in the bunch: wideout Will Pauling, who has now paced the Badgers in receiving yards in both of the team’s first games.
Fully healthy, how has Pauling adapted to his new role with the Badgers?
“Yeah. No, honestly, [that thought of injury from last year] always in the back of your head, but when things come, it just kind of just happens. [Being back and playing] is a good feeling,” Pauling said. “I mean, have two pretty good games, but, I mean, ultimately, the main goal is just for us to win a Big Ten championship. So given I’ve been playing good in the past, again, that’s behind me, so I’m just focused on the next week.”
However, Pauling did face a small injury scare in Week 2, as he took a nasty shot to the back that left him shaken up late in the game.
But, it’s nothing to worry about, according to the receiver, who says he’ll play in Week 3.
“Yeah, he got me pretty good on that play in the fourth quarter, but, yeah, I’m all good,” Pauling said.
Pauling had a strong Week 2 performance, catching five passes for 78 yards, which led all wideouts. The increase in output came alongside an improvement in play from quarterback Tanner Mordecai, which the wideout had no doubt would happen.
“Yeah, he’s a great player,” Pauling said of his quarterback. “Obviously, he had a great game this weekend.”
“He’s got the whole team’s trust. We all trust Tanner to come out and make plays for us. We all trust Tanner to be our leader on the offense. So it was no surprise how he played.”
With the up-tempo that the Badgers play with, there have been some concerns with how the players would hold up physically.
But, Pauling believes that the style of practice that the Badgers have operated with all offseason has prepared them well, helping the offense visualize the game better on Saturdays.
“Yeah, it’s actually kind of interesting because you’ve seen our practice, we move so fast paced and so up tempo. It’s kind of weird because you see the game, we’re like, ‘are we even going that fast? Are we going fast?’ So it’s good the way we practice,” Pauling said. “It really prepares us for the game and allows us to play much faster and again, play more free in the game.”
Fresh off a disappointing loss, how’s the Badgers locker room feeling about the team’s prospects this season?
Not much has changed, as Pauling believes the team’s goals of winning a Big Ten Title, and ultimately a national championship are still in the purview.
“Obviously, the team hates losing,” Pauling said. “Everybody in the program hates losing. But honestly, everybody we know is behind us now. There’s nothing we can do about it and in reality of it, we can still achieve everything we want to achieve. We can still go out and win the Big Ten West and go win the Big Ten championship and ultimately have a chance at the Natty if we play well enough.”
Pauling, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Cincinnati, was initially expected to have his breakout season in 2022 under head coach Luke Fickell at his old destination, but an injury severely limited his impact last year.
Now, fully healthy and integrated into the Badgers’ new offense, Pauling has developed a strong rapport with quarterback Tanner Mordecai, which was apparent in spring ball and has now carried over to the season.
Working out of the slot, Pauling has worked in all three portions of the field, with his speed, route-running capabilities, and ability to play beyond his size all showing out early for the Badgers.
In Week 1, the wideout caught five passes for 55 yards, leading the team, which Pauling followed up with a five-catch, 78-yard game against Washington State.
Without a reliable receiving threat emerging at tight end, Pauling has been the go-to target for Mordecai, and has even acted as a safety blanket at times in the short and intermediate range.
Prior to the season, Pauling was my breakout candidate for the Badgers receiver group, as I believed the transfer would pace the team in catches and receiving yards, ultimately ending up as Wisconsin’s WR1.
While Braelon Allen surprisingly leads the team in catches, Pauling is blossoming into the Badgers’ top wideout, and should continue to be a reliable option for Tanner Mordecai out of the slot.