Surrounded by reporters in the middle of April, Ted Gilmore was midway through an eight-minute interview when he was asked a question about his wide receivers that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Are there enough footballs to go around for a talented group that returns intact?
“The guys, they know they earn their reps. That’s the culture and that’s the environment we’re trying to create,” Gilmore said. “I tell them all the time, ‘I don’t control your reps. You control it by what you put on tape.’”
Gilmore’s room is filled with guys that put impressive efforts on tape last season, a departure from what had become a mostly one-man show in the seasons after Paul Chryst left for Pittsburgh following the 2011 season. So, the contributions from up and down the depth chart last season wasn’t something anyone could have predicted when Gilmore came to Madison when Chryst returned, this time has head coach, in 2015.
In the prior three seasons, one receiver — Jared Abbrederis in 2012 and 2013, along with Alex Erickson in 2014 — had more receptions than the rest of the receivers combined. That happened again in Gilmore’s first year with Erickson. But there were more guys involved in 2016 and things really took off last season when Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor combined for 100 catches and none had more than 31.
“I like the mindset [in the room],” Gilmore said. “Sure, they want to have opportunities, they want the ball. But they are genuinely excited about the [other] guy if he has success. They know if they are in there, they have earned it. That’s the environment we’re trying to create.”
The wide receiver room that Gilmore and the Badgers have built is arguably the best in school history. There may have been better individual players throughout the year but no group has had the experience and depth than the one Wisconsin will put on the field this year. The players in the room feel it, but so do their teammates and coaches.
“There’s times where we only have two receivers on the field at the same time,” running back Chris James said, “and I look at Coach Gilmore and be like, ‘How do you pick which guy to put out there because all these guys can take the top off?’”
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who played at Wisconsin with two of the best in school history — Lee Evans and Brandon Williams — said the Badgers have never had anything like they do right now.
“When I was here, that top tier [of] guys were very talented,” Leonhard said this spring. “Maybe depth wise it wasn’t quite what we have now. Now we have a very talented group at the top, but you start going down that group and you’re still really excited about a lot of guys or there’s just youth where they have some skills that can stress out a defense. I’m excited.”
Biggest question: What do you do with Aron Cruickshank?
The special part of Wisconsin’s wide receiver room is the depth doesn’t stop after the top four guys. Actually, most spring practice observers would have chosen early enrollee Aron Cruickshank as the MVP over the 15 sessions. Though he’s just 5-foot-9 and didn’t weigh more than 160 pounds in March, the Brooklyn, N.Y., product delivered big play after big play.
“He brings speed and quickness to the table. That stands out first and foremost,” Gilmore said of Cruickshank, who chose the Badgers over offers from Penn State and Ohio State. “Obviously, his big play potential [stands out]. He’ll have a chance to make some plays. For a guy his size, he displays some toughness when he has the ball in his hands. He’s not afraid to attack the tackler. He’s not afraid to run through things.”
Chryst joked that “Captain Obvious” could see the kid’s talent during the spring and that Cruickshank did enough to get more looks come late July and August in camp. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph saw it, too.
“I think he’s fought his way to say, ‘Look, man, you need to take a long look at me in the fall,’” Rudolph said. “I can see a role for him as soon as this [year].”
What that role will entail remains to be seen. If he’s able to duplicate what he did in the spring, which won’t be easy seeing as the absences of Davis, Pryor and Cephus allowed him to get more reps than he normally would, then they’ll need to find a way to get the ball in Cruickshank’s hands, whether it’s as a punt returner or in some specialized role on offense.
As for what Cruickshank’s thinking, he wants to play.
“To get on that traveling team,” Cruickshank said of his goals early in spring. “[Whether it’s] on special teams or at the receiver position, they know I can help out. I know I can help out, too. It’s just that it’s up to me to take it.”
In preparing for our position previews, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of highlights from last season. And as I tweeted the other night, Cephus was a problem for teams last year before his injury in November. He was clearly Wisconsin’s top target and showed why that was in his first padded practice in spring ball, going up to snag a pass from Alex Hornibrook in the back of the end zone with one hand. He’s a difference maker and a competitor.
The same can be said about Davis, who seemingly had a how-did-he-do-that catch every game down the stretch. Taylor also stepped up when Cephus went down and then had a big spring, while Pryor showed his skills in a variety of ways last year, including a pair of end arounds that went for touchdowns.
So, again, and I know I’m belaboring the point, but this group is loaded, and that’s not even counting on the true freshmen in Cruickshank, Taj Mustapha, Isaac Guerendo or A.J. Abbott, all of whom the staff is excited about.
However, not everyone is impressed with the group, apparently. College football expert Phil Steele put out his position rankings this week, including the top 20 wide receiver units in the country, and Wisconsin wasn’t listed. No matter, though. The Badgers will make that snub look foolish by the end of the season.
They said it
“[Quintez], his growth is a credit to him. It was accelerated pretty quickly because of his work ethic and his willingness to work at it and pick up the small things. He’s a guy that, truthfully, out of the three of them [Cephus, Taylor and Pryor], I felt his road would be longer because he was a [basketball player]. He hadn’t played a lot [of football]. I take my hat off to him [at] how he’s worked at it.”
Gilmore on the impact Cephus was able to make so early in his career
Projected depth chart:
Quintez Cephus (JR)
A.J. Taylor (JR)
Aron Cruickshank (FR)
Danny Davis (SO)
Kendric Pryor (RS SO)
Taj Mustapha (FR) or Jack Dunn (RS SO)
“The Camp” previews the WRs