Looking at the first and second fall camp scrimmages, there was a striking difference between the play of the now starting quarterback Bart Houston.
In the first scrimmage, Houston went 6-15 and had no touchdowns or interceptions. In the second, he went 18-27 for almost 200 yards.
When asked what changed and what made the difference, Houston said, “I just took a deep breath and let the play, play.”
While Houston is the one stepping back and letting the ball fly, a major reason he was able to take a step back and “let the play, play” was because of the encouraging talent emerging from the wide receiver position.
Led by senior Robert Wheelwright, redshirt junior Jazz Peavy, and redshirt senior Reggie Love, this year’s receiving unit is different from years past. Normally the receiver position is dominated by a single receiver: Alex Erickson in 2015, Jared Abbrederis in 2013 and 2012 as well as Nick Toon in 2011 and 2010. But this year, the wide receiver position is setting up to be one of the deepest units in quite some time.
“I feel like we have the most depth since I’ve been here at receiver,” junior George Rushing said. “Going into my third year I feel like we have multiple guys. I mean we’re all different types of receivers, and we can do different things but when we mesh it together, it can be something special.”
Rushing has come on as the third receiver in the Badgers offense as he has been able to make plays at multiple positions. In the second scrimmage of fall camp, Rushing hauled in close to 100 yards receiving.
The change for Rushing, though, from his second to third year, has been all about game speed and mental speed.
“It’s just understanding the game,” Rushing said. “I think it’s slowing down for me and actually having the offense for two years, I could go at the X the Z or the R [positions] and know what I’m doing and just be able to go instead of thinking.”
He was able to get those reps with the first team by making plays with the opportunities sent his way. With those opportunities, like getting substantial playing time in the annual Spring Game where he scored twice, Rushing has made his quarterbacks look good.
For some, like Wheelwright, it’s all about coaching and the way they address practice and scrimmages.
“Just the atmosphere that Coach Chryst puts us in, making sure everybody plays, making sure everyone is earning the play,” Wheelwright said. “Being able to be put out there in all types of situations, I feel like it’s boosted our play.”
Making sure everyone plays seems to be evident watching the Badgers’ practices. The freshmen wideouts have been getting reps, but they’ve also, like Wheelwright said, been earning the play.
Freshman A.J. Taylor has looked like a stud ever since the second fall camp scrimmage where he hauled in five catches for close to 100 yards including a couple 30-plus yard catches. Quintez Cephus, another freshman who is freshly off of the injury report, has looked extremely fast out of his breaks. The other freshman of the group, Kendric Pryor, has shown a knack at getting open.
Normally, transitioning from the high school game to the college game has its hurdles for first year players. Learning the offense or defense, the lifestyle change, and everything that comes with being a student athlete can be a challenge. But the fast learning curve for the freshmen has proven very valuable for the receiver unit.
“They’ve been really good at learning, learning the offense very fast,” Peavy said. “They learned it way faster than I did when I was a freshman, so I feel like they’ve taken really big steps in that.”
Taylor seems to be the best of the bunch so far, riding on the coattails of his fall camp performance and could see impactful playing time his first year on campus. But just because he is a freshman doesn’t mean his goals are any lower than anyone else on the team.
“I definitely agree with that,” Taylor said. “We’ve got guys that are stepping up and just getting after it this fall camp, which I love. Even just as freshman we’ve been doing pretty well. I think that we could change that running back team to a receiver team in a few years.”
One hurdle that the wideouts had to contend with this offseason was the uncertainty of who would be getting them the ball come gamedays. Up until Houston being named the starter late last week, Alex Hornibrook and Houston were splitting first team reps.
For the wideouts though, it did not matter who was throwing the ball to them.
“Everything that comes with what we do we try to make sure we do it the best we can to make the quarterback position as easy as possible,” Peavy said.
Pryor also reiterated that it was natural and that the quarterback battle had no bearing on the chemistry of the offense.
“It’s been pretty natural,” Pryor said. “I’m just trying to go out there and make them look good. Gotta make the quarterbacks look good. I think it’s natural to just try to go out there and make the catch.”
Wheelwright, in his last year, said it was good to see the quarterback battle and see Hornibrook and Houston both making strides as individual players, using the competition as motivation. Motivation is something Wheelwright is very familiar as he approaches his final play, his final catch.
“It being my final season is really motivating me so much,” Wheelwright said. “Being able to play here with some pretty good receivers Abbrederis, Erickson, Kenzel Doe. It’s been good just to watch them but it’s finally my time and I’ll be gone next year. That’s really it. This being my last year I really wanna go out there and give it my all and be a leader.”
As the college football season nears kickoff and Badgers fans focus on the return of Corey Clement and the run game, or how Houston fairs in his first start of his college career, the receiving unit will continue to grow.
And as Taylor said, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will slowly but surely turn into a wide receiver university too.
Wide receiver depth chart: Wheelwright, Peavy, Rushing, Love, Taylor, Cephus, Pryor.