Some of the former University of Wisconsin assistant football coaches were watching video last season involving a game with Ball State.
That’s when one of the coaches remarked that he wished the Badgers had the talent at receiver that Ball State did.
Yes, it came to that last season for the UW receivers: Jared Abbrederis notwithstanding, the Badgers had a hard time matching up talent-wise with a Mid-American Conference opponent.
In fact, the development of Abbrederis, a former walk-on who will be a senior, has only accentuated the struggles UW has had recruiting wide receivers the past five years.
For 13 seasons, UW had an effective strategy when it came to recruiting and developing wide receivers: Let Henry Mason do it.
From 1995 to 2007, when Mason coached the wide receivers, it was one of the consistently productive areas on the team. Not only was Mason responsible for coaching the position, he was also one of the strongest recruiters, bringing in two of the best receivers from that era — Chris Chambers and Lee Evans.
Starting with the 1998 draft, when two receivers were taken in the first four rounds — Tony Simmons went in the second and Donald Hayes in the fourth — the Badgers had six receivers drafted over nine years. It culminated with Chambers being a second-round pick in 2001 and Evans going in the in the first round in 2004.
That’s a pretty good stretch for a school known for running the football.
In the past six drafts, the Badgers have sent two receivers to the NFL, Paul Hubbard in 2008 and Nick Toon in 2012.
“Certainly when I first got here, I inherited some really good guys, had Donald Hayes, Tony Simmons, Reggie Torian and Kevin Huntley,” Mason said. “Two of them got drafted, one was a free agent (Huntley) and the other one (Torian) just barely missed the Olympics. We had good guys and those guys kind of set the table for the next group of guys that came in.”
Some recruits washed out
Since Mason was forced to give up coaching in 2007 due to a spinal cord injury, the receivers position has regressed. The obvious culprit has been recruiting.
The Badgers haven’t been able to recruit an impact receiver since 2007 — and then it was special circumstances: Toon was a local product from Middleton and the son of former UW standout Al Toon.
UW signed 12 scholarship receivers from 2008 to 2012 and while some of them need more time to develop, the returns have not been promising. Four of those players — T.J. Williams, Kraig Appleton, Manasseh Garner and Fred Willis Jr. — left the program after one or two seasons.
That’s one-third of the scholarship players over a five-year stretch who washed out early.
Mason is now the director of player personnel in the football program and remains an important resource.
Although he didn’t want to weigh in on the factors that have impacted the recent recruiting problems at receiver, he did provide a glimpse into the things that were important to him.
“It’s important that you step outside the bounds of the position,” he said. “There are a lot of guys that are wide receivers, but if you look back over the course of time, guys have converted from defensive backs, running backs, all different positions. If you keep that in perspective, it kind of broadens the pool of guys you can take.
“You look back over the years, Chris Chambers was primarily a defensive back. Lee Evans was a defensive back. Nick Davis was an all-purpose guy, Brandon Williams was an all-purpose guy, that’s just to name four.”
That also fits Abbrederis, a prep quarterback at Wautoma, who had to fight to get a chance just to walk on at UW.
Abbrederis wanted to take part in preseason camp as a freshman in 2009 and former UW coach Bret Bielema resisted initially. That was also the first year the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association split its all-star games into large and small schools.
After his performance in the small schools game, Abbrederis was finally offered a spot on the camp roster. Had he not been selected to play in that game, he might have walked on with the UW track and field team, instead.
Abbrederis didn’t receive a single Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer after suffering a torn ACL and broken femur as a sophomore.
“He’s an example of a guy who played quarterback in high school and had a bad situation with an injury and there he is,” Mason said. “He’s certainly not only one of the top guys in the conference, but in the country.
“It’s very important to have those (walk-ons) come in and not only fill the gaps but take it to the next level, not only be starters and then be good players in the conference and the country,” Mason said.
UW remains selling point
But the Badgers will continue to struggle at the position if they don’t do a better job in recruiting.
Mason never viewed the school’s running tradition as a deterrent.
“The main thing we told them, ‘If you come in and you’re the best guy, we don’t throw it much but if we do, we’re going to throw it to you,’ ” he said. “Not many of those guys had great numbers as far as catches.
Most of them had high yards per catch, which meant they were getting the ball down the field and having opportunities to make big plays, and big plays turn into touchdowns.”
Sending so many players into the NFL also helped Mason’s recruiting pitch. While he said he missed on some players, too, it wasn’t as costly because of the high percentage of contributors.
“More important than fit to the offense is fit to the program, what we’re all about,” Mason said. “If they buy into the way things are done here at Wisconsin, then the rest of it usually falls into place.”
Mason does not believe there’s anything inherently risky about recruiting receivers, although keeping them happy once they arrive can be a factor.
“You read about that position being a quote-unquote ‘diva’ position,” he said. “We never allowed that to be here. We didn’t have that issue here. When those things are factors when you have a personality deal with the receivers, then you have an opportunity to miss on some guys.”
On the recommendation of athletic director Barry Alvarez, UW coach Gary Andersen sat down with Mason prior to signing day last week.
Andersen wanted to get an idea of the recruiting areas that have been the most productive for UW in the past, “the perfect recruiting map, if you will,” Andersen said.
It would be wise for Andersen to tap into Mason’s knowledge of recruiting receivers, too.
“Henry has been unbelievable for us as a staff,” Andersen added. “He’s a very, very valuable, valuable piece of this staff as we move forward in a lot of areas, not just in recruiting. His knowledge at the University of Wisconsin is important to me, I promise you that much.”