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.”