Former UW receiver Brandon Williams knows what the Badgers' current freshmen wide receivers are going through as they try to make an impact in their first year in Madison.
Learning from the past
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Brandon Williams has some advice for the three true freshmen wide receivers that are on the roster this year for the University of Wisconsin.
“Number one, get in that playbook. Number two, don’t be afraid to be a leader. And number three, have that swag (and) that confidence.”
If those three players – George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders – are as smart as they appear to be, they’d listen to UW’s all-time leader in receptions. Because what they are trying to accomplish in 2014 – be impact players in their first year on campus – was something he did 12 years ago.
The St. Louis native came to Madison and ended up catching the most passes (52) and racking up the most yards (663) of any true freshman in school history.
“Coming out of high school, I always had a mindset that I wanted to play as a freshman. I never wanted to redshirt. I always wanted an opportunity. That was one of the stipulations as far as me picking what school I really wanted to go to,” Williams said last week. “So coming in I always had the mindset that I wanted to play. I wanted to contribute. I wanted to be someone the team could lean on, and I wanted to make a lot of plays.”
Williams, who currently works for the Big Ten Network as an analyst, showed up on campus in 2002 with no doubts about what he could offer former coach Barry Alvarez. However, when he signed that February he had no idea he’d need to play such a big role.
In 2001, Lee Evans set the school record for catches (75) and receiving yards (1,545) in a season, with the latter record still atop the charts. Despite that big year, Evans came back for his senior season only to tear his ACL in the spring game. He would end up missing the entire year.
So with one of the best receivers in school history unable to play, and the returning receivers having combined for just 17 catches the year before, UW wasn’t just hoping another wide out would step up – they needed it to happen.
While the circumstances don’t match identically, what UW is going through now and what they did in 2002 are similar. Instead of Evans getting injured, another all-time great, Jared Abbrederis, ran out of eligibility. And instead of 17 catches from Darrin Charles and David Braun the year before, UW brings back 26 grabs between the trio of Kenzel Doe, Jordan Fredrick and Alex Erickson. But in both cases the need was, and is, for young players to make an impact.
Like most high school players, Williams had some limitations physically compared to his teammates already in the program – and that was a worry for the coaches. At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, could he matchup in the college game?
“Obviously, I wasn’t one of the biggest or strongest,” said Williams, who was one of three scholarship true freshmen on UW’s 2002 roster. “But I was able to translate my game into the Big Ten game, and (former wide receivers) coach (Henry) Mason did a hell of a job of getting me prepared to understand how physical the Big Ten is. Because as a receiver, it’s really physical. You’ve got to be able to block, especially at Wisconsin, and that was one of the biggest things they were concerned about with me.”
But for Williams the most significant challenge was learning the playbook. Though he arrived early in the summer, he still dealt with the normal freshman overload early in the season.
“I was just more concerned about learning plays, understanding, in particular, the hot routes, so when I get two blitzers off the edge, I got to know that I need to break it off to a slant,” Williams said. “That’s one of the things I struggled with the first two games (of 2002). That was the biggest thing for me.”
A couple things are working in the favor of this year’s freshmen, including the new rule that allowed players to meet with wide receivers coach Chris Beatty in the summer for up to two hours per week.
“No question it would be a big benefit,” Williams said. “They’d get to come in and look at a lot of film, see some of the concepts on paper and see some of the concepts on video. Kind of understand (what the coaches had in mind for them).”
Another advantage is an upgrade in technology. Whereas Williams had to go to Camp Randall Stadium to watch film, every current Badgers player has an iPad to study and watch film on.
“Probably about two hours a night,” said Rushing of the amount time he spends studying. “Just go home and look at the plays, go over the different installs, future installs. You go over the film, critique yourself, that type of stuff.”
“It’s very valuable, because I get a chance to not only just watch myself, I get to watch Kenzel, I get to watch Rob, and watch Reggie, and I can learn from, not only the good things they did, but the bad things, so that I won’t make the same mistake.”
Williams echoed those comments in his advice to the freshmen.
“When I had down time, I put that time towards football and not going out and hanging out,” said Williams, who played two seasons in the NFL after getting taken in the third round of the 2006 draft by the San Francisco 49ers. “That’s just what it is. You’ve got to really be hungry and really want to play, because these seasons are going to happen (fast). Your freshman year is going to happen fast. It’s going to go by really fast and you want to be prepared.”
Helping that process is Beatty. Like Mason assisted Williams, the Badgers’ second-year coach stays on top of his guys and holds them to the same standards – whether they just got to Madison in June or have been with the program for years.
“In the film room he critiques us on every little thing,” Rushing said after practice on Tuesday. “Knit picks everything, so it helps you as a player, and it helps me as a receiver.”
Beatty is meticulous for a reason.
“Right now, (the freshmen) have no idea what they don’t know,” Beatty said towards the end of the first week of fall camp. “If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s hard to ask the questions to be able to know what you need to know. It’s all a process. Right now, they are further along than I thought they would be.”
When Williams came in, the UW offense was more simplified than what they’ve run in recent years. The Badgers were still three years away from Paul Chryst’s arrival and a more pro-style system, something Williams got to experience as a senior. Now the freshmen have to jump from a high school playbook to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s more detailed script.
“In our scheme there’s different splits,” Beatty said. “Everybody lines up different every time. They run a whole route tree, as opposed to learning a couple routes they specialize in, so there is a huge learning curve.”
True freshmen have rarely had a big impact at Wisconsin. Evans, for example, caught three balls for 76 yards and a touchdown in 1999. Two years earlier Chris Chambers’ stat line read six catches for 50 yards. Lee DeRamus had some success, leading UW in receiving in 1991 with 23 receptions for 374 yards. And more recently, Kyle Jefferson had 412 yards on 26 catches in 2007.
But that history makes the success of Williams that much more remarkable, though at least some of the credit should go to quarterback Brooks Bollinger, who was a senior that year.
“… (He) really tried to bring us along because, quite honestly, (there) wasn’t too many other options,” Williams said. “But he did a hell of a job just trying to coach us through it.”
But it still comes down to making plays – something each of the new Badgers did in high school.
The speedy 5-foot-11, 180-pound, Jamerson scored 42 touchdowns in his career at Vanguard (Ocala, Florida) High School.
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Rushing piled up 18 touchdowns in his senior year at Cardinal Gibbons (Miramar, Florida).
And the 6-foot-1, 193-pound, Sanders accumulated 3,613 receiving yards and 56 touchdowns during his time at Wayne County (Jesup, Georgia) High School.
So while times change, Williams experience a dozen years ago leaves him in a unique position to know how the freshmen are feeling this year and how they can best succeed.
“Get in that playbook. Don’t be afraid to make plays. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Walk out there as if this is my job. As if I’m the number one guy. This is why they recruited me to come here. You come out with that mentality and that swagger and then you translate it onto the field and own it.
“Once you understand what you’re supposed to be doing that confidence just catapults you to greatness.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin