MADISON, Wis. - With Jared Abbrederis now off to greener pastures, it was clear the Wisconsin Badgers needed an influx of talent at wide receiver in their 2014 recruiting class.
They made it a big priority in Gary Andersen's first full recruiting class, and ended up signing five players who project at receiver in their first season on campus. And now that Dareian Watkins, Chris Jones, Natrell Jamerson, Krenwick Sanders and George Rushing are all in the fold, Chris Beatty's focus shifts from recruiting them to molding them into players who can help the Badgers as soon as possible.
"If you do one thing really well I can hopefully help you with the rest of it," Beatty said Wednesday. "If you've got great ball skills, that gives you an opportunity. If you've got great speed, we can enhance things that you might not have- because you're not going to get finished products. Very few high school kids are finished products, and if they are usually everybody in the world wants them too. You want to see them be exceptional at something, and then be able to build on that."
Beatty said Watkins and Rushing both have great straight-line speed and ball skills, while Sanders and Jones are more prototypical outside receivers who can stretch the field. Beatty described Jamerson as more of a slot receiver who could help in the return game as well. The group makes for an interesting combination of skillsets, and Beatty said in the end the Badgers didn't have to reach for players to get the quota they set for themselves.
"We wanted to get five from the beginning and we feel good about the guys we got," Beatty said. "If you look at our list in May, it's the same guys we ended up with. A lot of times you're reaching at the end to try to get guys to fill out your class and we were fortunate enough to get guys that we were on, knew a whole lot about from the beginning, and know their family and what they're about on the field, off the field and feel good about them fitting here."
The Badgers are hoping that at least one of their new receiver signees can contribute right away, because none of their other returning receivers has more than 27 career catches. And with so much playing time up for grabs, Beatty stressed that he didn't recruit any of Wisconsin's five new wide receivers with a redshirt in mind.
"We don't recruit to redshirt [someone]- at least I never have," Beatty said.
News and notes:
The Badgers weren't able to sign as many defensive backs as they wanted to in the 2014 class, but defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said he is looking forward to seeing someone like incoming freshman D'Cota Dixon come in and compete at the nickel back spot. The Badgers used Dezmen Southward in that role last year, but Aranda said moving a safety down to cover a slot receiver isn't always ideal.
Michael Caputo has indeed moved down from safety to outside linebacker, which means that both starting safety spots are up for grabs in 2014. Austin Hudson will get a chance to compete for reps during the spring after he signed and enrolled early, and Serge Trezy will get every opportunity to win one of the jobs as a junior college transfer with two years of eligibility remaining.
Aranda also said that he's looking forward to using some of the players he and the rest of the staff brought in to the program, instead of having to mold players that were already on campus into his 3-4 base defense. Aranda said he had to simplify some of the things he asked the defensive line to do during the season because some of the players were better at using 4-3 concepts.
"A year ago today, sitting here, I'm thinking we're going to slant and stunt and blitz and everything, and then the further we go and I get to see the guys that we've got. We were not so good going [laterally] we were much better going [straight ahead] and just playing base," Aranda said. "Really, to be honest with you doing what they were doing the previous three years. That's what they were good at."
But with six of the seven starters lost to graduation Aranda said he thinks he can start using some of the concepts he couldn't employ last year, which call for more blitzes and other wrinkles.
"I think [with] all of those guys leaving, those strengths leave, so this year's team is not last year's team," Aranda said. "We will be slanting, stunting, and blitzing more, we'll be smaller and I think we'll be more athletic, we'll be quicker and faster but … the stoutness and everything is not going to be there because that was a special group of guys."
Aranda also likes what defensive tackle signee Jeremy Patterson brings to the table, and said that he thinks the three-star prospect could play early on in his career for the Badgers.
"Not only can he play the two-gap, but when he does slant and stem he can make plays down the line of scrimmage. He is a sideline to sideline player, and that is really impressive," Aranda said. "When you watch him on tape and you see his hips flip and you see his change of direction it's very impressive. Later in the tape you can see him be physical and knock people back. I am really excited about him. You want the best of both- you want a guy who demands a [double team] but you also want a guy who when he is singled and you slant him that he can win, and that's Patterson."
The Badgers recruited a few players who committed to them early on but decided they wanted to take a few other official visits, including George Panos and Jaden Gault. Both offensive linemen stayed true to their original commitments and signed with the Badgers on Wednesday, but in-state recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland said letting players get recruited and go on trips is part of the process sometimes.
"It's all built on honesty and trust and that's one of the core values we always talk about in our program, and having them understand that that's how we operate in our program. There was an open line of communication," Strickland said. "Kids are put in a tight spot, [with] a lot of people telling them what they should or shouldn't do. It's important if they feel like they have to go see [another school] for themselves not to hold them back from that."
Wisconsin's spring practices will start on March 7, a week or so ahead of when they started last year. Their spring game is set for April 12, and Strickland said getting their spring work in early has a couple beneficial factors behind it.
"With spring practice it allows us some time leading up to exams to get another training cycle in," Strickland said. "We want to get football in as early as possible, because one we want to get out on the road recruiting, we want to make sure we get guys that on-field experience."
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.