Tough test on tap for Wisconsin’s receivers

MADISON – The Wisconsin Badgers are coming off one of their better offensive performances of the season against Minnesota in their regular season finale. To say they were flawless would be a false testimony, but it was an effort that was certainly repeatable, and one they’ll likely need to attempt to improve upon this week against Ohio State.

The Buckeyes present a much more talented defense than the Gophers did, and there isn’t an argument on that front. It’s no secret that Wisconsin has struggled to take care of the ball at times. That’s something they can ill-afford to do when they square off with Ohio State. The Buckeye defense is filled with big named playmakers more than any other unit the Badgers have gone against this season.

“They’re a good defense, man,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph told the media on Tuesday. “Their defensive line, they’re so deep and there are so many guys to study and watch. Their backers can fly around and run, they can step up and play press on you all day. They’re just really good and they’re really well coached within their scheme. I said this about Michigan’s defense, was a defense that was similar, but every guy can make the play. You know what I mean? They’re a field full of playmakers, which is difficult. You’ve got to be on, and every guy has to be on. They’ll be quite a challenge.”

The Buckeyes have the eighth best total defense in the FBS this season. They only give up 291.8 yards per game while holding opponents to slightly under 20 points per game. The Buckeyes have also been stout in the passing game, keeping opponents to an average of only 179 yards per game though the air. They’re also fifth in yards allowed per play at a miniscule 4.4. On the other end, Wisconsin’s defense actually ranks first in both yards per game and per play, at 236.9 and 4.0, respectively.

On offense, Wisconsin has relied on freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to be one of the best players in the country, but recently new playmakers have started to establish themselves. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has played better over the past two games and wide receivers Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, and A.J. Taylor have done a remarkable job filling in for the injured Quintez Cephus.

Against Minnesota, Hornibrook had his first interception-free game in the Big Ten this year and those three receivers combined for 11 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. That group will be facing a huge test when lining up against Ohio State corner Denzel Ward.

“Playmaker,” Rudolph said as soon as Ward’s name was mentioned in a question about Ohio State’s defense. “We saw that against us [with Iowa’s Josh Jackson]. I think you’ve got great talent on the edges there. You give them an opportunity to make a play and they can make it.”

Ward was named a first-team All-Big Ten defensive back on Tuesday by the media as well. He’s been a regular in the first round of many mock draft experts and one of the best corners the Badgers have seen all season, only Iowa’s Jackson compares.

“He’s got good feet, he’s athletic, he’s quick,” Taylor said about Ward. “It’s going to be a competition, it’s going to be a fight. He’s a good corner. It’ll be a fun matchup.”

“I feel like he may be a little more faster and quicker with his feet,” Pryor said comparing Ward to Jackson.

If the Wisconsin offense was faced with this challenge shortly after Cephus went down for the year with a right leg injury it may be too tall of a task. Even though Cephus has only been out for three weeks, they’re more seasoned on the outside at this point than they were right after his injury.

“We keep saying each game we get better and better but I really think we’re a lot more comfortable,” Taylor said. We are a lot more comfortable as a group going out there and just doing our thing. Nobody is really nervous to go out there and maybe run a route or catch a ball in a big-time moment. We’re all more comfortable and we can think now, we feel like the game is starting to slow down. I’d say that’s how we’ve gotten it. The game is slowing down to us and it’s not as fast and intense as it would be.”

The young group will be facing a tough test on a stage larger than one they’ve previously been on, but it’s a challenge they’re ready for.

Wisconsin’s wide receivers ready to show off their ammo

MADISON – Quintez Cephus went up and made a terrific touchdown catch over Indiana defensive back Tony Fields in the week 10 matchup between the Badgers and Hoosiers. That would be the last big play that Cephus made for Wisconsin in the 2017 season. Later in the game he injured his right leg requiring season ending surgery.

“I had just thought [Cephus] was just hurt,” fellow wide receiver A.J. Taylor said. “After the game that’s when I saw him in the wheel chair and he was giving everyone a high-five. Just after that they told us [he was done]. It does hurt, we needed him and we miss him but that is how it is.”

Before the injury, Cephus was the top target on the outside for Wisconsin’s offense. He finishes the season with 30 grabs for 501 yards and six touchdowns.

Taylor is one of the receivers tasked with having to pick up the slack from that position with the absence of Cephus. Against Iowa he only had one grab, but it was a good enough for a touchdown from five yards out to put the icing on a 38-14 victory.

Taylor isn’t alone in having to help fill the void left by Cephus’ injury, however. Fellow receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor are seeing the field quite a bit and were productive against Iowa. While they’ve both been in and out of the lineup this season due to injuries, Wisconsin’s offense needs them now more than ever. They’re motivated to pick up the slack.

“If anybody says anything like [that wide receiver is a weak spot without Cephus] you just have to go out there, and you can’t think about it too much but you just have to make those plays and eventually they’ll stop saying that,” Davis said. “We’ll continue to make those plays on Saturday and shut everybody up.”

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” Pryor said when asked if Iowa expected the receiver group to play as well as they did without Cephus. “It’s just about us going out there, we just go out there and play ball and that eventually people will know that we’ll go out there and make plays.”

The extra motivation seemed to work for both Davis and Pryor. Davis was the team’s leading receiver for the day with four grabs for 74 yards, including a couple crucial grabs early in the game with Wisconsin trailing after Iowa’s Josh Jackson pick-six on the first drive.

Pryor made an impact as well. He only had two touches, with both of them finding the end zone. On Wisconsin’s fifth drive of the game he took a handoff from quarterback Alex Hornibrook around the left end and took it 25 yards to the end zone. That gave Wisconsin the lead and they never turned back. Two drives later he caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Hornibrook to put Wisconsin up 17-7 before the half.

The play of his fellow receivers seemed to appease the injured Cephus who took to Twitter during the game.

Wisconsin wide receiver Quintez Cephus took to Twitter during the second half of Wisconsin’s 38-14 win over Iowa on November 11, 2017.

“He told me after the game what he was tweeting,” Pryor said. “He came on the field after the game and was like ‘Kendric Pryor! Danny Davis! A.J. Taylor! We’ve got ammo!’ That’s pretty cool though, that just shows me he’s still engaged trying to just motivate us while he’s not able to be out there.”

With how well Wisconsin has been able to run the ball with freshman running back Jonathan Taylor this season people certainly are aware of the ammo the offense has, just not at the receiver position.

“We’ve got ammo,” Davis said, reciting Cephus’ tweet. “I thought that was pretty funny, man, because we do. We just have to go out there and showcase it on Saturday.”

While both Davis and Pryor were aware of the message Cephus was telling the Twittersphere, Taylor was unaware.

“I don’t know, I didn’t see it,” Taylor said upon learning of the tweets Cephus sent. “That’s dope, I like that. I didn’t even know about that, that’s hilarious.”

The Badgers can still perform well offensively without Cephus, Taylor knows they have the ammo to do so.

“We really just have to focus up and detail as much as we can. I mean, the biggest thing is just getting better each week and we’ve got to get better each day. We really just have to step up, step up and bring our A game.”

Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus to miss the rest of the year

The expectation became reality today for the Wisconsin football team.

On Thursday’s injury report, wide receiver Quintez Cephus had gone from out for Saturday’s game against No. 20 Iowa to out for the season. It comes five days after he suffered a leg injury against Indiana that required surgery.

“You feel bad for him, certainly,” coach Paul Chryst told reporters. “[Quintez] will bounce back.”

Wisconsin is losing its No. 1 receiver in Cephus, who is tied with Troy Fumagalli with the most catches (30) on the team and leads the Badgers in receiving yards (501) and touchdowns (6). In fact, with Cephus out, along with seniors Jazz Peavy and George Rushing likely not playing again, Wisconsin must finish the year without three guys that have amassed 120 catches, 1,761 yards and 11 touchdowns in their careers.

That said, the Badgers have become accustomed to dealing with injuries and other guys filling in. In this case, that means sophomore A.J. Taylor, freshman Danny Davis and redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor. That trio has combined for 31 catches, 534 yards and three scores in their careers, most of which has come this season.

“I’m excited for them and their opportunity,” Chryst said. “Every time you say that it’s not like you’re not going to miss [the guy you lost]. You miss all the people. But, absolutely, I feel confident about the guys in that room stepping up and those around stepping up.”

Here’s a look at the full injury report in advance of Wisconsin’s game with No. 20 Iowa.

Wisconsin WR Jazz Peavy to miss Purdue game

MADISON — Wisconsin will not have the services of wide receiver Jazz Peavy on Saturday against Purdue.

The school released its final injury report for the week and Peavy was listed as out with a right leg injury. Coach Paul Chryst told reporters that it’s something that’s been bother the senior for a while, but he did practice some this week and it isn’t expected to be something that keeps him out long term.

Peavy has not been as involved in Wisconsin’s offense this year as he was as a junior, as sophomore Quintez Cephus has ascended to the No. 1 spot. Still, his absence will mean more chances for younger receivers, including sophomore A.J. Taylor, freshman Danny Davis and redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor.

“It’s another opportunity for guys to step up,” Chryst said. “You always want all your players, but you want them to be at their best. Obviously, Jazz isn’t able to do that. [We’ve] done it at a lot of other positions, and [now] that [wide receiver] group has to step up. And those around have to step up.”

Peavy has five catches for 55 yards this season.

The rest of the injury report:

QUESTIONABLE:

OL Jon Dietzen (leg)
RB Chris James (leg)
OL Micah Kapoi (arm)
K P.J. Rosowski (leg)

OUT

RB Taiwan Deal (leg)
S Patrick Johnson (arm)
DE Chikwe Obasih (leg)
WR Jazz Peavy (leg)
WR George Rushing (leg)

It’s still early, but Wisconsin’s young wide receivers have shown they can play

MADISON | Ted Gilmore was very excited about the three wide receivers the Wisconsin football team signed last February as part of their 2016 recruiting class. But even he admitted he wouldn’t know exactly what he had in them until they stepped on the field this fall.

“So many times in recruiting you think you have an idea of what you see on tape, and then once they get here, they’ve got to put it all together,” the second-year wide receivers coach said Sunday afternoon. “Is it what you thought it was? And it’s what we thought it was.”

Yes, after seven practices of fall camp it’s become clear that Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor all have the potential to contribute sooner rather than later for the Badgers.

“I like all three of those guys,” Gilmore said. “I think we hit the jackpot.”

With last year’s leading receiver Alex Erickson catching touchdowns and returning punts for scores with the Cincinnati Bengals this preseason, the gaping hole of production left behind needs to be filled. It’s believed that senior Rob Wheelwright and junior Jazz Peavy will be the top two options, and it’s likely they will be when healthy. But neither of them are right now, and that’s left the door open for junior George Rushing, senior Reggie Love and the three first-year guys. And it’s the latter of that group that have stood out.

Head coach Paul Chryst said on Saturday that the trio deserved more reps, while also cautioning they still have a way to go. And Gilmore echoed that statement.

“They have earned more reps,” he said. “They’re flashy. They’re having some moments, and they have those freshmen moments where they turn right and should have went left. But the athleticism is there. The ability is there.”

And Gilmore is coaching that ability up, likely more so than a year ago when he had veterans in the lineup. He can be seen sprinting from spot to spot on the field, telling guys if they are lining up wrong or what route they’re supposed to run. He’s the first to congratulate them on good plays and also the first to make corrections. It’s all part of a process that will take a step up on Monday when the team scrimmages for the first time this fall.

“I can’t assume anything. And not that I do with the older guys, but sometimes they’ve earned the right to fail,” Gilmore said. “Right now I’m not giving (the young players) a chance to fail. I’m steering them the whole way and helping them out. When we scrimmage (on Monday), they’re on their own. I’m not going to stand behind them. I’m just going to see who knows it for speed.”

Cephus has flashed the most of the three, beating defensive backs with regularity. That’s he’s adapted so quickly is a tad surprising, simply because he played just one year of varsity football at his high school in Georgia. His first love was basketball and had scholarship offers from a number of schools, and even committed to Furman last September. Search Youtube, and you’ll find plenty of videos where the 6-foot-1, 195-pound, Cephus is throwing down rim-rattling dunks.

Though the skills he showed on the court don’t transfer seamlessly, his competitive spirit does. He’s battled the veteran defensive backs throughout the first week of camp and didn’t cede an inch.

“I knew there would be a learning curve, and there is,” Gilmore said. “He knows the base concepts, but when we have an adjustment he’s still struggling with that. But he’s a competitor. That’s what comes out. Even if (he) doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s competing. I love that.”

While Cephus was a basketball star, Taylor was the star running back and the No. 1 ranked player in the state of Missouri. But Gilmore saw him and thought wide receiver.

“I was a little hesitant coming in,” Taylor admitted of the position switch. “But this summer really changed my whole mindset. I’ve been working and working, trying to get more consistent. And actually, I feel a lot more comfortable playing receiver now than I did my whole four years playing running back [in high school]. I feel more confident [now] than anything.”

And when he has a question, he’ll ask it. Though Gilmore sometimes tells him to shut it down and just play.

“A.J.’s a very smart kid. A.J. is one of those kids that can overthink things,” Gilmore said. “I just tell him stop being smart for a moment. Don’t overanalyze it.”

Pryor was recruited by some to be a defensive back, and he could still end up there at some point for Wisconsin. But just like the other two players, the Illinois product has flashed play-making ability that could see him and his fellow freshmen get on the field early.

“All three of them are in the conversation,” Gilmore said of potential playing time. “What that looks like, obviously we don’t know yet. But all three of them are in the conversation whether it’s with special teams (or) whether it’s in the rotation with the main wide outs. They have put themselves in position to talk about them when we talk personnel.”

Wisconsin football: Practice report 8/9

MADISON | For the second time this fall, the Wisconsin football team hit the practice field late Tuesday morning at Camp Randall Stadium. And like it was on Monday, the 2 ½ hour session was free of pads, and full of offensive and defensive installation periods.

Some observations:

— Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook once again shared the No. 1 quarterback reps in the limited team drills. The competition between the two should start to ramp up as the pads come on later this week and we start to see some 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work.

— There were no defenders present, but true freshman Kendric Pryor had one of the catches of the day, going up high with one hand to pull in a pass on the sideline. It was somewhat similar to the catch made by Rob Wheelwright in the Holiday Bowl.

— The battle to replace Drew Meyer at punter is going to be more competitive then some thought coming into fall camp. Anthony Lotti, a true freshman who was ranked as the eighth-best high school punter last year, was supposed to be the heavy favorite, but redshirt sophomore P.J. Rosowski appears ready to try and claim the job for himself. He had the most impressive boot of the day, bombing a 55-yarder with solid hang time. It was just the second day of camp, but the forgone conclusion that Lotti would claim the job doesn’t appear to be the case just yet.

— Among the guys on the other end of those punts as returners were seniors Sojourn Shelton and Corey Clement, along with juniors George Rushing and Jazz Peavy.

— Wisconsin is also looking for a new holder after Meyer handled those duties the last few seasons. Redshirt freshman Connor Allen held on all of Rafael Gaglianone’s kicks on Tuesday, with the junior hitting all four, including the final one from 44 yards out. Rosowski was the holder for senior Andrew Endicott, who went 2 of 2.

Odds and ends

— Several players, including junior linebacker Jack Cichy, are sporting Mohawk-style haircuts.

— When a player false starts, they are subbed out for a play. During a walk-through portion of practice tight end Eric Steffes jumped, and when no one immediately replaced him, offensive line coach Joe Rudolph sprinted into the spot and took the rep.

Injuries

Still out:
LB T.J. Edwards (foot)

New injuries:
OL George Panos (shoulder)