The best way to gauge the frustration of first-year University of Wisconsin wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni during spring football practices was to watch how far his hat flew.
Periodically, Azzanni would reach a point of exasperation and his baseball cap would go sailing.
“I forget there are people around” watching, Azzanni said of the media in the stands. “Last year at Western Kentucky (as offensive coordinator), there was nobody, didn’t matter what I did.”
Azzanni admitted to brief bouts of frustration — and he certainly wasn’t alone.
During one practice, UW coach Bret Bielema screamed at his receivers to stop dropping so many passes and for somebody to step forward. “You’ll play,” he assured them.
It was that kind of spring for the receivers, who were plagued by injuries and inconsistency.
Of course, the group that lines up in the fall likely will look much different than the one that stumbled through the spring. Junior Jared Abbrederis will take over as the No. 1 receiver after Nick Toon was a fourth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints.
Abbrederis was awarded a scholarship in January following a breakout campaign during which he caught 55 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns. He missed all spring while recovering from a foot injury.
That left junior Jeff Duckworth (15 catches, 230 yards, one touchdown) as the most experienced receiver, but he also missed time in the spring with an injury.
UW’s other receivers have a combined four receptions for 49 yards and two expected contributors in the fall, junior Manasseh Garner and redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick, also were limited in the spring.
“Hopefully, during two-a-days, we’ll jog out and it’ll look like a whole different receiver corps,” Azzanni said.
The two receivers who came the furthest were sophomores Isaiah Williams and Chase Hammond.
Williams, 6-foot-1, 194 pounds, dropped two potential touchdown passes in the first half of the spring game and was demoted to the second team at halftime. Still, his progress prior to that was notable.
“Ike’s my kind of guy because he plays with an edge,” Azzanni said. “He’s got a lot to work on, but he goes out there and plays with a hard edge. That’s what I preach all the time. He tries to do that, he tries to be that bully out there. If I can get five or six of those bullies, we’ll be doing pretty well.”
The 6-foot-5 Hammond had three surgeries on his right ankle and was told by doctors more than once he might not play football again. He said the spring was “do or die” for him, then had a big spring game with four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.
“Every time I came off the field, I tried to tell Jared, ‘I’m out here playing to try and get in the huddle with you,’ ” Hammond said afterward.
There’s no denying the Badgers’ young talent at the position. It’ll be up Azzanni to refine it so the young players are ready for the season.
“I do think coach Azzanni and the way he coaches is going to get some big jumps out of guys in a short amount of time,” Bielema said.
Azzanni said the thing that frustrates him is players making a mistake repeatedly.
“If we have some mistakes I know we shouldn’t have made, obviously, I lose my temper in practice sometimes,” he said. “I also think they know there’s a certain mentality I want there.
“I always tell them, ‘There’s the most committed guy in our group and there’s the least committed.’ We’re not coming down, they’re coming up. I’m not changing.”
Nick Toon was the team’s No. 1 receiver and caught 64 passes for 926 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Burning question: Who will be the No. 2 receiver?
Duckworth goes in as the favorite to line up opposite Abbrederis and is brimming with confidence after his 36-yard grab on fourth down to set up the winning TD in the Big Ten title game. Duckworth is sure-handed and runs good routes but is more of a possession receiver. That means the door could be open for one of the young guys to step through.
Player to watch: Isaiah Williams
He was the closest thing the team had to a consistent receiver in the spring through 14 practices, then dropped two potential touchdown passes in the first half of the spring game. Still, he’s a physical player with a bit of an attitude, which new receivers coach Zach Azzanni appreciates. Williams played through a hamstring injury in the spring. “I’m making plays and doing what I have to do, but I’m just trying to stay humble going forward and trying to be consistent,” he said.