Oct. 18, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
As Wisconsin wide receiver Jeff Duckworth conducted a post-practice interview, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright each knelt on one knee within earshot; waiting for their turn in more ways than one.
“Big Play Duck,” Erickson said. “Number called, ball in the air, he’s going to make a play on it.”
Said with nothing but respect.
“He’s like the big brother to the team,” Wheelwright said. “Old and reliable; a great mentor.”
Said with nothing but respect.
What did Duckworth have to say for himself?
Very little, since he’d rather talk about others. So he talked about Erickson, a redshirt freshman from Darlington, Wis., and Wheelwright, a true freshman from Columbus, Ohio.
“These two are going to be really good players,” Duckworth said. “You can see it already.”
Erickson, a walk-on, is starting to make some ripples. He has caught passes in each of the last three games, including a 35-yard reception against Northwestern that set up a third-quarter touchdown.
“He’s fundamentally sound,” Duckworth said. “He does everything right; he’s in the right spots. You can trust him, he has dependable hands and he has taken some shots and hits with catches.”
Factoring into Erickson’s development has been the year he spent in the program as a redshirt. The Badgers felt it was in Wheelwright’s best interests to get some game reps, growing pains and all.
“Rob has a whole bunch of talent,” Duckworth said. “His time is going to come.”
There have been times, Wheelwright hinted, that he has felt a little bit overwhelmed.
“Sometimes it’s hard to take it all in, but I’ll continue to learn,” he said. “I hit the wall earlier. Right now, I’m starting to get back in a groove. I’m taking it day-by-day and trying to get better.”
Besides special teams, he’s still hoping to be more of a contributor as a receiver.
“That’s my plan,” said Wheelwright, who has two catches in limited action. “I want to show the coaches that I can be consistent in practice so I can get back on the field (in a game).”
Wheelwright said he has tried to heed Duckworth’s advice on “making the best of every opportunity that you get” and however many that is “make it seem like you’ve been out there the whole game.”
Wheelwright then quoted a team buzz phrase, “Don’t count your reps, make your reps count.”
Duckworth could not have said it better. As such, his overall influence has been measurable.
“He’s the old guy,” said Wheelwright with a grin, “so I always look to him for advice. He’s just another mentor. I always look forward to coming to practice and learning from him each and every day.
“He helps me a lot with my game. After every play, if he’s not in there, I’ll come back and say, ‘Duck, how was that?’ He just another coach in my eyes.”
There’s also a respect factor at work here for Wheelwright, who observed, “He’s had a lot of injuries, but he’s a gamer. He goes out there and plays as hard as he can. I really admire him for that.”
What’s not to admire about somebody who has been able to overcome a couple of bulging discs in his lower back to play college football? Duckworth, a fifth-year senior, has found ways to persevere.
“It’s just his demeanor,” Erickson said. “He never gets too high or too low. He’s consistent. He’s going to come out and work hard every day. You can learn a lot from him. He stays nice and steady.”
That’s where Erickson would like to take his game.
“I think that I’m making strides but obviously I have a long ways to go,” he said. “Some days the reps are limited, some days they’re not. You never know when your number is going to be called.”
So you have to stay ready, Erickson said. Something everybody has learned from Duckworth.
“It’s one of those things where you kind of understand his limitations as far as practice goes,” UW wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said of Duckworth, “so we try to limit his reps a little.”
Smiling, he added, “We just want to make sure he can get to the bus.”
Despite the lower back concerns, Duckworth just keeps showing up when you least expect him.
“He’s a crafty veteran,” Beatty said. “He’s one of the few guys who you could tell, ‘play Z, play X, play R or play whatever’ and he could do it because he knows every spot.
“He takes great notes, he understands the game and he has been through it. There’s something to be said about experience and those guys (Erickson, Wheelwright, etc.) know they can lean on him.”
Beatty acknowledged that Wheelwright is going through “a little bit of that freshman lull and “there’s a wall you have to break through but that’s a process, too, and it’s not unexpected.”
On the other hand, Beatty said of Erickson’s progress, “He’s a guy I feel comfortable putting out there in multiple spots. I really feel good about where he is. He has made some plays.”
Much has been written this week about Beatty’s return to Illinois, where he coached last season. “He just said treat it like another game,” Wheelwright said. “It’s another team on our schedule.”
Is that the way Beatty really feels?
“I’m glad where I’m at,” he said, “It all works out for a reason.”
Big Play Duck could not have said it better.
“Best decision of my life coming here,” said Duckworth, who’s looking to get into coaching himself. “It’s winding down fast now and I’m just enjoying these last weeks. Every game gets more important.”
• • • •
After pinning Wisconsin inside its own 20-yard line on each of his six punts, including five inside the 10-yard line, Ohio State’s Cameron Johnston was the Big Ten’s Special Teams Player of the Week.
Johnston, a 21-year-old freshman from Geelong, Australia, saved his best for last; a booming 55-yard punt with 1:29 left to play that forced the UW to start its final possession from its own 10.
Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer tried not to notice, but, of course, he did.
“One thing we always talk about with Coach (Jeff) Genyk is to try and not focus on what the other guy is doing,” Meyer said. “Try not to make it a competition between you and the other player.
“But obviously you appreciate it when a guy has a good outing and he (Johnston) had a great game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to flip the field position the way that I wanted to.
“In general, I wasn’t happy with my performance.”
Against the Buckeyes, Meyer averaged 40.4 yards on five punts; the longest was 48. He didn’t have any downed inside the 20, but OSU’s Philly Brown had just one return for six yards.
A year ago, Brown returned a punt for a touchdown against the Badgers. Moreover, Brown fumbled away a Meyer punt in Columbus, but the turnover was erased because of a UW penalty.
None of that appeased Meyer, who had to sit with the memory of what happened at Ohio State for an extra week because of an open date in the schedule. It made him hungrier for Northwestern.
“I really tried to focus on stepping onto the stage this past weekend,” he said.
The results were most gratifying. All four of Meyer’s punts were downed inside the Northwestern 20. Thanks to Meyer’s leg, the Wildcats started drives from their 15, 12, 9 and 10.
“It wasn’t quite as dramatic as it was on the negative side for us at Ohio State, but it sure was a big factor,” said UW head coach Gary Andersen. “He was definitely a weapon.”
Why was he so much more effective against Northwestern?
“Having the bye week helped in just getting home to see the family,” said Meyer, a redshirt sophomore from Hartland, Wis., and Arrowhead High School. “Sometimes you hit a point in the season …”
Where you need a break; not that it was a loss of focus at Ohio State, he pointed out.
“Also we were playing Northwestern,” he said, “and one of my best friends, Jeff Budzien, had talked about this game for the last couple of years.”
Budzien, who’s also from Arrowhead, accounted for the Wildcats’ entire scoring offense by booting a couple of field goals.
“It was a fun day in general,” said Meyer, whose pooch kicking is predicated “on forcing fair catches and not giving them returns” or “getting hang time for your coverage unit” to down punts.
“You’re setting up the other 10 guys who are helping you and making your job easy,” he said. “And the whole coverage team did a good job of getting down there (against the Wildcats).”
There’s a certain mindset that goes along with pinning opponents inside their own 20.
“You have 20 yards to work with,” Meyer said, “so don’t pressure yourself into thinking you have to pin them on the 1-yard line because you never know which way the ball is going to bounce.
“So just stayed relaxed, trust yourself and be confident in your abilities.”
It’s exactly what Meyer would tell Wisconsin placekicker Jack Russell, who’s taking over for Kyle French and handling the placement duties (field goals and extra points) at Illinois.
“Trust in what got you here,” Meyer would also tell Russell. “Know that you’re here for a reason. We all have a role on this team, so just do your best and hopefully things will work out.”
Russell was 3-for-3 on PATs against Northwestern, he’s 5-for-5 overall.
“I’m just trying to keep my leg fresh and not overkick this week, I think that’s really the best thing I can do,” said Russell, a sophomore from Waunakee, Wis. He’s 0-for-3 on career field goals.
“You always have to stay prepared; you always have to try and stay ready. But as the weeks went by and I wasn’t really getting many reps, it was a little frustrating.”
Russell admitted that he has to refrain from thinking “It’s really one shot or nothing” or obsessing over the possibility “if I mess up on that one shot I’m done.” He simply can’t think that way.
“They told me that I’m ‘the guy’ for Illinois,” Russell said, “and I have to go out there and know that I’m ‘the guy.’ I know I haven’t really kicked as well as I had back then. I’m just trying to find that.”
“Back then” was when Russell was earning first-team all-state recognition at Waunakee. As a senior, he made 69 of 70 PATs and was 5-for-7 on field goal attempts.
“Jack deserves an opportunity,” said Andersen, who also conceded Monday that the lack of success in the kicking game may impact some of his decision-making on offense.
“I think the way Drew punts the ball also helps us there because if he can get it inside the 10-yard line consistently like he’s done, it allows you to have second thoughts about a long field goal.
“Asking someone to go 90 yards if the defense is playing well is very tough.”
After Thursday’s practice, Andersen said that linebacker Chris Borland might be used for long field goals, kicks of 45 yards or longer at Illinois. Borland was an outstanding youth soccer player.
“He hasn’t missed yet (in practice),” Andersen reported. How many has he attempted. “Two,” Andersen said with a laugh. “Two for two; better than 0-for-2.”
As a UW freshman, Borland converted three extra points at Hawaii. Andersen noted that Borland would not require a special kicking shoe. “He probably could kick barefoot,” he added.
Andersen also said that Russell had a solid week of practice. “To have as many opportunities as I’ve had,” Russell said, “I have to take this one and run with it.”
• • • •
Jakarrie Washington had his favorites growing up in the Boston suburb of Everett, Mass. On offense, it was DeSean Jackson. On defense, it was Peanut Tillman -- old school -- and Tyrann Matthieu.
As a senior, Washington caught 33 passes for 439 yards and nine touchdowns, so it only made sense that his role model would be Jackson, now in his sixth season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Given the UW’s emphasis on takeaways, Tillman makes sense, too. Known for picks and strips, Tillman has 35 interceptions and 41 forced fumbles during his 11-year career with the Chicago Bears.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Washington said, “but he gets the ball out.”
No explanation is needed for a Badger (Washington) looking up to a Honey Badger (Matthieu).
“He’s just an amazing player,” he said.
Explaining how Washington became Andersen’s first committed prospect is more challenging only because there was a confusing bookkeeping mistake with his high school grade-point average.
“My school kind of messed up my GPA and colleges were getting scared off, but we got that fixed,” said Washington, who came to the attention of UW safeties coach Bill Busch.
Texas Tech and Washington State also got involved, but he liked what he saw at Wisconsin. “Good environment and good people,” said Washington, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound freshman.
After starting cornerback Darius Hillary was injured in the Northwestern game, Washington took over on the corner opposite another true freshman, Sojourn Shelton, who has started all season.
“We help each other,” Washington said of the DBs. “We work together but we still compete.”
No one could have seen this coming: two freshmen corners and a junior college safety. But it has played out that way with Shelton and Washington and Tanner McEvoy, the Arizona Western transfer.
McEvoy was recruited as a quarterback. He moved to wide receiver when it became apparent that he was not going to beat out Curt Phillips and Joel Stave. He then injured his wrist and moved to safety.
“The key was Tanner accepting it,” Andersen said. “That’s why, in my mind, it’s such a great story -- another story on this football team of unselfishness and care factor and want-to ...
“He could have easily gone into a shell and said, ‘Woe is me’ and ‘Why has this happened to me?’ and everything else that you see a lot in sports. But he had none of it.”
When McEvoy was asked if he thought that his story was special, he said, “I guess, it’s unique. I wouldn’t say it’s super special. That’s how the cards played out. I’m just trying to help this team win.”
Did he see it unfolding this way? Did anyone?
“I talked to a couple of my friends and they said, ‘It’s funny seeing you out there,”’ McEvoy said. “No one expected it. Honestly, I didn’t. I don’t know if you did, but I didn’t.
“It’s been a little different but everyone has seemed to adjust to it. Every day, I feel more and more comfortable back there. I’m just trying to make a play on the ball. I haven’t gotten one yet.”
Maybe it will happen for him at Illinois.
“I’m excited to see where things go,” McEvoy said.