The University of Wisconsin might be perceived as a running school, yet senior wide receiver Nick Toon could hold the key to the offense.
The constants for the UW offense in recent years have been the success of the running backs, offensive line and tight ends. The variables have been the quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Toon is the only wide receiver to lead the Badgers in receiving yards and catches since Brandon Williams caught 59 passes for 1,095 yards as a senior in 2005. As a sophomore, Toon had a breakout season with team highs of 54 catches and 805 yards. Then he broke down.
He looked to be on the cusp of even bigger things coming out of preseason camp as a junior, but a turf toe injury suffered in the opener at UNLV and a thigh bruise against Ohio State limited him to nine games and seven starts. He ended up with 36 receptions for 459 yards and three touchdowns.
"I think I would have had a bigger year last year than I had the year before, had I stayed healthy," Toon said. "Hopefully, we can avoid those issues this year."
The Badgers are 6-0 in games in which Toon (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) catches a TD pass. The problem last year was he didn't find the end zone until the 10th game against Indiana.
"He's got to be a big player for us," Bielema said. "I told him last year, 'When you play well, we play well.' That was the case when he was healthy."
Toon, from Middleton, is tied for 10th at UW with 107 career receptions and ranks 11th with 1,521 career receiving yards, so he has been productive. But he is the first to admit injuries have prevented him from reaching his full potential. His only career 100-yard receiving game was against Indiana as a sophomore.
"You kind of hit it on the head," Toon said when asked if he has something to prove. "Sophomore season was good, but nowhere near the maximum potential. Obviously, last year had some injury issues but it is what it is, part of the game. Hopefully, (I) can do some big things this year."
Every time Toon looks around at the young faces in the receiving room, he gets a reminder of his role on the team. There are 17 receivers on the roster and 13 of them are freshmen, including six first-year players.
"There's a real big gap in maturity," Toon said. "I'm the oldest guy by far in the receiver room. Definitely take on a mentorship role naturally. I know a lot of those guys look up to me."
The only other experienced receiver is sophomore walk-on Jared Abbrederis, who caught 20 passes for 289 yards and three scores last season.
As good as the offense is running the ball and throwing to tight ends over the middle, it needs receivers to stretch the field deep and to work the boundaries.
With the arrival of transfer quarterback Russell Wilson, the Badgers have solidified the quarterback position. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is pushing Toon to work on the finer points of his position and get more out of each practice.
"I think Russell is going to be good for (Toon)," Bielema said. "I know Paul is trying to help him in certain aspects of the game. I just hope good things happen."
Added Toon: "The biggest thing for me is just take advantage of every opportunity I have, every practice, every game, every ball."
The Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver, recently released a watch list of 75 names, including nine from the Big Ten Conference. Toon was not on the list.
The last memory Badgers fans have of Toon is a crucial drop on the opening drive of the Rose Bowl, causing the offense to settle for a field goal. Toon said he ran a good route but never saw the ball.
"I didn't see it until it hit me, so those ones are hard to catch," he said.
Toon sat out spring practices due to a stress fracture in his left foot, a common injury for receivers, but said he is 100 percent now. Bielema said Toon and his dad, former Badgers receiver Al Toon, had their heads down at a meeting after the injury was discovered.
"I've tried to bring him along mentally," Bielema said. "I sat down and said, 'This is the best thing that ever happened to you.' I tried to change the way they were looking at it."
To Bielema's way of thinking, better to happen in the spring than during preseason camp.
"I know the next level (NFL) has talked highly of him if he can stay healthy," Bielema said. "I think it's a mental thing for him to challenge himself, too."