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Wisconsin's wide receivers, including Rob Wheelwright (15), Alex Erickson (86) and Kenzel Doe, hear the doubters.

Removing the doubt

By ZACH HEILPRIN
 
MADISON - They hear you. Your concerns about them replacing Jared Abbrederis, your doubts about their past production and your worries that they’ll hold the offense back. And guess what? They don’t care.
 
“You can’t look at it too much because I know what our receivers can do,” senior Kenzel Doe said in advance of the University of Wisconsin opening fall camp this week. “When I see that, it’s people on the outside looking in and not from inside looking out. We’ve been here together going on three or four years, and we’ve known what we’re capable of doing.”
 
They know what they’ve been capable of but have been overshadowed by one of the best receivers in school history. Abbrederis rolled up the second most catches, yards and touchdowns of anyone that’s worn a Badgers uniform. He led the team in receiving yards in each of the last three seasons before getting picked in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. And though his rookie year came to an early end due to a torn ACL, his name is still very much on everyone’s tongue in Madison.
 
“He stands out more but now that Abby is gone people are definitely going to see, ‘Oh, they can play. They just need to be out there, needed that shot.’,” Doe said. “This year is going to be totally different.”
 
The thing is, they’ve dealt without Abbrederis in short stretches in recent years. He was knocked out of two games in 2012 and left a pair of contests early last season. Though none of the receivers had huge performances after he left, it did force the quarterback to look elsewhere.
 
“I think we can be really good at that position,” 2013 starter Joel Stave said. “Last year, everyone knew we were kind of focused on one guy in the passing game. Now with the talent we have we can be very balanced and distribute the ball a lot more.
 
“I know if you remember the games that Abby went out, then it really started to get spread around. Alex Erickson would have a catch. Jordan Fredrick, (Jeff Duckworth), (Jacob Pedersen), James (White). Everyone was getting the ball at that point. I think we can be very balanced. We can use all of our guys.”
 
Abbrederis left the Northwestern game in the second quarter last season due to a head injury. After he left, Stave hit eight different receivers on UW’s way to a 35-6 victory.
 
But when Abbrederis was in a game he served as a security blanket for the quarterback. He was to Stave what Sterling Sharpe was to Brett Favre in the early part of his career. Favre would only look at Sharpe and force the ball into him at the expense of the other players on the roster and the offense. Favre’s career didn’t truly takeoff until Sharpe retired due to injury, and No. 4 was left with no option but to look for someone else.
 
“Jared is Jared. That’s a security blanket,” Doe said. (Abbrederis was) for sure going to run his routes. This year we don’t have Jared, so obviously the ball is going to have to be spread around. The more comfort (Stave) has in us to catch the ball, and the more times we go out and prove to him we can catch the ball, or even Tanner (McEvoy), whichever quarterback is out there, that’s going to give him the opportunity to trust us, and we can show everybody that we can catch the ball.”
 
The Badgers have three true freshmen wide receivers that looked promising in their first college practice this week, and a pair of second-year players in Rob Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy that the coaches like. But most people’s questions from outside of the program surround the players that have been around, like Doe, junior Jordan Fredrick and sophomore Alex Erickson. Though their career production hasn’t been able to match that of Abbrederis, the coaches are counting on them to step their game up.
 
“I think a bunch because they know what your expectations are,” wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said. “They kind of know what it’s like to be in the big games and a hostile environment. Year two is always easier, and now they know exactly what we want. It’s not about what the previous coaches did or how they taught you. They know exactly your lingo, your terminology. We have big expectations for them, and that’s part of that growth having played earlier.”
 
The wide receiver position is very similar to the Badgers as a whole. UW coach Gary Andersen has talked about the edginess he feels the team has because of outside expectations.
 
Yeah, UW were picked to win the West Division of the Big Ten, but not a single voter in the poll actually said Wisconsin would win the Big Ten Championship game.
 
Yeah, they’re ranked No. 14 in the first coaches’ poll of the season, but no one is giving them a chance to beat No. 13 LSU later this month in Houston.
 
Yeah, the wide receivers are nice and all, but none of them are Abbrederis.
 
“It motivates me. It motivates (other guys),” Doe said of the ‘yeah, but’ crowd. “That motivates us even more to go out here and actually prove to people what we can do. We know what we can do, and we’re going to prove it.”
 
 
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin

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