MADISON, Wis. - The Badgers are going to need someone to step up at wide receiver if they want to keep their offense relatively balanced in 2014. That someone very well could be Robert Wheelwright, who's looking to inherit more than just Jared Abbrederis' old jersey number this fall.
A 6-foot-2, 198-pound sophomore from Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, Ohio, Wheelwright played well in Wisconsin's first practice of the spring. His routes were sharper and hands were softer, allowing him to pull is most of the passes that came his way.
Wheelwright looked like a much more confident player this time around than he did last fall during his first semester on campus, and head coach Gary Andersen credited that extra spring in Wheelwright's step to the staff's decision to let him see the field in other roles as a freshman. Wheelwright agreed with that statement on Friday after practice, and said just seeing the field on special teams was enough to get his head on straight about playing at the college level.
"I got to feel the atmosphere of being out there on the field, and I took a couple snaps out there on the offensive side [too]," Wheelwright said Friday. "It feels good just knowing that I've been through this before and I can kind of get the feel of it."
If he gets his way Wheelwright, who will don No. 4 for the Badgers now that Abbrederis is off to the NFL, very well could take over as Wisconsin's primary deep-threat. He's fast enough to get behind a defense now, and with a little more practice time Wheelwright could combine his already existing physical gifts with the tricks of the trade that make good wide receivers even better.
"He's way more mature [now]," senior wide receiver Kenzel Doe said of Wheelwright Friday. "Obviously when you first come in you don't know the offense and you're just trying to get the hang of stuff. But now he's coming in and is way more confident in his routes and the combination of routes in the plays."
"You can compare him a little bit to Abbrederis as far as his height. He has speed and he's tall."
Wheelwright said he does try to pattern himself after Abbrederis, who was a little lighter than Wheelwright but still found a way to make plays and stay confident when things didn't go his way.
"That's something he was really good at was being confident, and just having fun," Wheelwright said. "He looked like he loved being out there and that's one thing I can continue."
But the Badgers will also need Wheelwright or another receiver to show that they can produce and make big plays if they want to keep defenses from keying on Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Wheelwright thinks that's something he can handle, though, especially now that he's getting consistent reps with the first team.
[I just want to] be the guy who can get open in man-to-man coverage … the guy who can be a playmaker," Wheelwright said.
With Abbrederis gone that's exactly what the Badgers need. But only time will tell if one solid day of practice was just a flash in the pan or the start of something more.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.