By TOM LEA
MADISON – Junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis not only has the tall task of learning life as Wisconsin’s newest No. 1 wide receiver, but he also has to do so while filling the shoes of former standout Nick Toon as both a leader and go-to standout.
Toon, now with the New Orleans Saints, collected 64 passes for 926 yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago for the Badgers. His 14.5 yard-per-reception average was impressive, especially considering opponents would send their top cornerback to contain him.
Toon was effective enough that Abbrederis openly admitted how the then senior made things easy for him.
“When you have another high caliber receiver like Nick,” Abbrederis stated. “It made things a little bit easier on me. I’ve just got to keep working hard and improve.”
It’s incredibly important for Abbrederis to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver throughout the course of the regular season, because simply put, there may not be a bona fide No. 2 receiver to compliment him.
Sure, freshman Jordan Fredrick has been impressive throughout the course of fall camp and players such as A.J. Jordan, Chase Hammond, Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe and Isaiah Williams are patiently awaiting their chance to become a viable weapon in Matt Canada’s offense.
But are any of those players capable of playing a role like Abbrederis did a season ago — one that probably made things easier for Toon, too — now that he’s the No. 1 receiver?
“Consistency is a huge thing,” Abbrederis said. “Especially at the receiver position. If you’re not consistent you can really see. If you’ve got a pass your way and you drop it you’re going to know that. They’re all there. They’re all looking really good. They’ve just got to be consistent, that’s me included.
“Just because I played well last year doesn’t mean it’s going to happen this year. I’ve got to keep working. We’ve got to keep improving together.”
Abbrederis caught 55 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago. He’s far and away the most experienced receiver on the roster in 2012. In fact, only two of the eight scholarship players at wide receiver other than Abbrederis have ever caught a pass.
Jeff Duckworth (18 catches, 262 yards) and Kenzel Doe (two catches, four yards) have a combined 20 catches for 266 yards throughout their career, more than 650 yards less than what Abbrederis had as a sophomore.
Even if you throw Jacob Pedersen’s 488 career receiving yards into the equation at tight end, the group still doesn’t come within 150 yards of Abbrederis’ production in 2011.
“That’s the staple to our receiver group right now,” Hammond said. “He’s played. He’s been there. He’s had ups and downs. He knows what is going to happen and he knows how he has to practice to prepare. I think we have to watch him and try to emulate him. We know that he has been there and that he’s done that.
“If we can practice as hard as him every day, then maybe we can get to that same level.”
Jacob Pedersen returns for his junior season as UW’s second most productive pass-catching threat. He had 30 receptions for 356 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago as arguably UW’s fourth go-to option offensively behind Toon, Abbrederis and Montee Ball.
He, along with Abbrederis, has the task of leading an incredibly young core of receivers and tight ends that don’t have a ton of experience in college games.
“We’ve got to step up and we’ve got to be the leaders,” Pedersen said. “We’re definitely not going to be able to do it ourselves, definitely not. We’ve got a lot of young talent., (but) I guess it’s up to Abby and I to kind of get them going and get them in the game.
“That’s what we’re working on.”
How easy can that be, though, especially when considering the No. 1 problem plaguing the receivers throughout the course of spring camp and so far in fall camp is drops and inconsistencies?
It’s easy to lead — to say all the right things, to teach in the film room and to support when things aren’t necessary in ones favor — but it’s not remarkably easy when mental miscues lead to drops, bad alignment and the like.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys,” Hammond said. “Everyone is worried about other things. By the time they get to the catch point their mind is elsewhere. Everyone is worried about alignments. Everybody is worried about what coverage the defense is in. That will come with repetition.
“There is a group of us that have been doing well with it and then there’s a group of us that just need to catch up a little bit. Like coach Zach Azzanni says, ‘Just get on the bus.”
As of now it seems as though freshman Jordan Fredrick is the top candidate for the No. 2 job behind Abbrederis. Having redshirted a season ago, Fredrick hasn’t even stepped foot on the field during a college football game.
Abbrederis was in a similar role during his freshman season of 2010 — he caught 20 passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns — so he’s endured the peaks and valleys of being a freshman receiver. He also knows how to find success in such a role.
But there’s a major difference between Abbrederis’ freshman year and Fredrick’s upcoming freshman year.
Abbrederis had Nick Toon, David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson flanking the position in 2010. All of those players had ample experience throughout the course of their respective careers and all contributed at various rates during that time.
This year it’s Abbrederis and a bunch of young and unproven talent. Junior Jeff Duckworth caught 15 balls for 230 yards and a touchdown a season ago, sure, but he’s currently listed as Doe’s backup on the two-deep depth chart.
“If you only have one guy that is making plays the defense can really zone in on that one guy,” Abbrederis said. “The more spread out you are and the more talent you have across the field, the better it’s going to be. I think that’s just a something as time goes on will tell.
“As time goes on I think somebody is going to be able to go into that role.”
Until then, though, the young players on the team are just following in Abbrederis’ footsteps.
“Abby is a great leader,” Hammond said. “He goes out there and he works hard. That’s his No. 1 leadership role. He’s not completely vocal, but in the receiver room he definitely plays that role. He works his ass off. Everybody sees that out here.
“I don’t think he really needs to say much to prove that point.”