Robert Wheelwright is one of the young receivers that will have to fill the void left by Jared Abbrederis and others.
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Playing time is an attractive selling point for coaches when they go into a recruit’s home. It’s been one that the University of Wisconsin has used extensively in this recruiting cycle especially at wide receiver. And there’s several big reasons – or departures for that.
Including tight ends and running backs, the Badgers will lose 81-percent (162 of 201) of their receptions and 84-percent (2,055 of 2,445) of their receiving yards from this year’s team due to the graduation of Jared Abbrederis. Jacob Pedersen and James White.
“I think anybody would look at it and say, ‘Where can I have an opportunity to play early? And be at a winning program. Because usually those things don’t go together,” wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said recently. “So for us there is opportunity but that being said I don’t want to shortchange the guys we’ve got. I feel really good about the strides their making but I think people see that Jared is a big part of what we do and they say ‘Hey, I want to be the next Jared.’ So I think that is attractive.”
Wisconsin has four wide receivers committed for the class of 2014 right now. Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio), Krenwick Sanders (Jesup, Ga.), Chris Jones (Hyattsville, Mary.) and Natrell Jamerson (Ocala, Fla.). They are after another big-time prospect in Jamil Kamara (Virginia Beach, Va.).
But Beatty isn’t joking when he says he likes the guys he’s got. And he is perhaps no higher on a player than freshman Robert Wheelwright. Extremely raw when fall camp opened in August – the only real route he ran in high school was of the go deep and the quarterback will throw it variety – Wheelwright has made significant strides.
“Route-running,” Beatty answered when asked where Wheelwright’s biggest gains have come. “I mean he does a great job. He’s probably, next to Abbrederis, the next best route runner we’ve got. He’s really crisp in and out of his breaks. Right now, he runs routes that are night and day (from where he was).”
Wheelwright was in agreement with Beatty’s assessment and said Abbrederis was a big factor in that jump.
“Every day,” Wheelwright answered when asked about learning from Abbrederis. “When I watch film, I watch his routes. I watch my routes and compare them. Try to see what I can do. I watch a lot of people’s routes but Abby is probably one of the best route runners I’ve seen.”
What makes Abbrederis so good is how loose his upper body is, allowing him to get in and out of his breaks so quick. And that makes him unpredictable – another aspect of his game that Wheelwright has picked up on.
“Being creative,” he said of what makes a good route runner. “Just working your routes and setting up the defensive backs so they think you’re going to do something that you’re not. That’s the one thing I look at. Making sure they’re uncomfortable.”
As with most young players, developing consistency in Wheelwright’s game is a time consuming endeavor -- something that will continue to be a focus of Beatty's. And while the 6-foot-3 Ohio-native has made significant strides in his route running he still has too many dropped passes.
“It’s just putting the whole thing together,” Beatty said. “And that comes a lot with being comfortable and not pressing. I think he presses a little bit to try to impress, not only me, but the older guys. I think he’s feeling more and more comfortable every day, so I expect big things from him.”
Beatty, who’s coached some big-time receivers, including the Seattle Seahawks Percy Harvin, the St. Louis Rams Tavon Austin and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, believes the position can be filled with 'know-it-all’s'. But Wheelwright is a willing pupil.
“I think Rob’s about as coachable of freshman that I’ve been around,” Beatty said. “In that regard, he reminds of (former West Virginia receiver) Tavon Austin. Because Tavon is one of those dudes that was like every day, he almost wears you out because he’s asking you, ‘How can I do this better or how can I do that?’ but he hangs on what you say and I think he’s learned a lot.”
The freshman’s impact has been minimal this year. He’s played in 11 games but has just two catches for nine yards. That’s despite the coaches being desperate for someone other than Abbrederis to step up. With him gone the only receivers left that caught a pass this season are Wheelwright, Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson.
While a lot of focus is on 2014 there are still opportunities to make an impact this year in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. The passing game wasn’t consistent at the end of the year and it led to teams selling out against the Badgers powerful running game. Wisconsin was able to still win in Minnesota but couldn’t finish off the season with a win over Penn State. That led UW coach Gary Andersen to call for others to get involved.
“We want to be able to do some things different and we need to do some things different in the bowl game,” Andersen said. “I hope some other receivers are going to step up and grow up and make some plays as we go through this next month of practice. I want to have the opportunity to get the ball in their hands and have them make some plays for us. Just overall, the passing game needs to take a step forward.
“If we’re going to have a chance to win this next football game it’ll have to. If not, we won’t win.”
Wheelwright hears that and wants to take advantage.
“It’s real exciting,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for. I wanted that early but I had to sit back and learn. But now I get a chance to go out there (and make plays).
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin