MADISON - It's no secret that Wisconsin's wide receivers struggled last season. Jared Abbrederis' 49 receptions dwarfed the rest of the unit, with Jordan Fredrick's 17 receptions coming in a distant second place.
The Badgers didn't lose any receivers during the offseason, which should give other players like Kenzel Doe, Reggie Love and Jeff Duckworth another chance to step up and contribute. But the Badgers very well could have another one-dimensional offense in 2013 if Abbrederis is the only player defenses have to worry about. New wide receivers coach Chris Beatty is preaching consistency during spring drills, but there's no guarantee another receiver will step up to take the heat off of Abbrederis.
Luckily for the Badgers, their running backs are willing to lend their hands to the cause. Senior running back James White said the Badgers are planning on passing to them out of the backfield more often in 2013, and he and the rest of his position group are willing to take on the extra responsibility.
"It's not too big of an adjustment," White said Monday. "We caught the ball out of the backfield some last year but we're going to do it a little bit more. We're going to take on that role and they're counting on us."
In total Wisconsin's running backs and fullbacks caught just 32 passes last season, which is right in line with their average dating back to the 2007 season. Fullback Derek Watt led the group with 12 receptions as a freshman, and said he and the other running backs will be there in safer routes for the quarterback to use if the wide receivers can't get open downfield.
"I think we're trying to incorporate the running backs and the fullbacks more than we have in the past in the passing game as check-down or quick little low routes to just kind of get the ball going," Watt said. "It could be a significant difference from years past."
White caught eight passes last season, and has just 34 receptions for his career. But he said catching the ball out of the backfield isn't new to him, thanks to his days at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Florida.
"I like catching the ball out of the backfield," White said. "It's something you have to do in order to get to the next level, and I'd really like to expand on that, whether they line us up out of the slot or have us catch it straight out of the backfield."
The Badgers experimented with lining White up as a slot receiver at times last season, but the Badgers seem to be focused on getting the ball to him and fellow running back Melvin Gordon in space so they can use their athletic abilities one-on-one against a defender. That could mean running more routes right out of the backfield, much like what Watt did for most of his receptions last year.
"If you get a guy [out there] like James or Melvin, they're pretty shifty guys," Watt said. "I wouldn't quite classify myself in their category but when you get pretty shifty guys out there in space they can do special things. If you make a guy miss, it can go a long way."
It's too early to tell if extra backfield passes will give the Badgers more long passing plays, but they could use the help. The Badgers had just 90 passing plays go for more than 10 yards last year, which put them in a three-way tie for 102nd place in the nation with Iowa and Kent State.
And while the Badgers are still hoping a receiver or two will step up alongside Abbrederis, White and the other running backs may well have to focus on picking up first downs through the air as well as on the ground.
"That's what coach Gary Andersen stressed to us," White said. "When we had our one on one meetings with him he said he's going to try to get us in space. When we get out there we have to be able to make somebody miss and move the chains."
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.