Dec. 30, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon attracted a crowd on the first day of media availability in Orlando following his announcement last week that he was returning for his junior season.
By sharp contrast, UW wide receiver Jordan Fredrick didn’t have a single interview request. Fredrick also announced last week via Twitter that he was coming back for his junior season.
“I thought I’d get more press than Melvin, but I guess not,” said Fredrick with a figurative shrug of his shoulders. “I guess he was the big deal.”
Fredrick was spoofing then (with his tweet) and now (speaking after a recent practice in Orlando). Not everyone realized that Fredrick was just having some fun and messing around, though.
“I would say 99 percent knew it was a joke,” he said. “Then there were some -- I don’t know if they thought I was serious -- but their reply (on Twitter) was in a serious manner.
“It was interesting to see that perspective. I don’t know what idea they were getting. But I was just trying to have a good time … it was just a joke … all of the guys caught on.”
UW freshman wide receiver Rob Wheelwright, for one, has always appreciated Fredrick’s sense of humor. “I got a big laugh out of that,” he said. “He’s the funny guy on the team.”
By no means was Fredrick trying to take away from Gordon’s decision to return. On the contrary, he said, “We’re going to love having him back -- we all know what he can do.”
Fredrick, like others, realize that Gordon will be in a position to make an even stronger run at the Heisman next season after putting himself in the discussion early this season with some big games.
“He should be in the Heisman running,” he said. “But he’s focusing on this ballgame first.”
Obviously, if Gordon can help lead Wisconsin to a victory in the Capital One Bowl, he could also help himself by building some momentum for his 2014 Heisman Trophy candidacy.
The intriguing twist is that the Badgers will see how they measure up to back-to-back SEC opponents by finishing this season with South Carolina and opening next season with LSU.
So what happens Wednesday at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium will not only have an impact on the departing seniors but it will set the out-of-season tone, one way or another, for the returning players.
Staying in the moment, Fredrick stressed, “After this game, we’ll worry about next year.”
But he also conceded that he’s planning on using his off season “to definitely hone and focus on getting better in the passing game so I can be a way bigger factor next year with Abby gone.”
Abby, of course, is senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who has joined Lee Evans and Brandon Williams as the only pass catchers in Badgers history with a 1,000-yard season. Evans did it twice.
Going into the Capital One Bowl, Abbrederis has 73 catches for 1,051 yards. That’s 63 more receptions than any other wide receiver on the roster. Fredrick and Jeff Duckworth have 10 each.
Abbrederis caught a career-high 12 passes in the regular-season finale against Penn State as quarterback Joel Stave had the second most single-game pass attempts (53) in school history.
The Nittany Lions are a sore spot for Fredrick. Nothing hurt more than that Senior Day loss. But compounding the frustration for Fredrick was the fact that he was injured on the opening kickoff.
“Watching is hard to do, especially when you lose,” he said. “It was very disappointing, especially with the outcome and how much passing was involved. You feel like you could have contributed.”
Fredrick pronounced himself “at full-go” and “feeling good” about his playing status for South Carolina. “I’m definitely feeling a lot better this week than I did last week and the week before,” he said.
The Badgers will go into this game, like every other, looking for a complementary receiver to Abbrederis. Jacob Pedersen, James White and Alex Erickson had four catches each against Penn State.
“Duck is definitely going to be stepping up,” Fredrick predicted of Duckworth, a reliable fifth-year senior. “We all know how Duck comes up big and this is a big game. He’ll be ready.
“If they call my number -- when they call my number -- I’ll be there and ready to contribute.”
|“Rob is going to be a freak one day, he’s going to be a great player here,” Fredrick said of Wheelwright (above).
It was a promise that Fredrick kept in last season’s Rose Bowl when he caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Curt Phillips with 19 seconds left in the first half.
“It was a rub play,” Fredrick remembered. “I was the third read; a checkdown. It was designed for Kenzel (Doe) and for me to get a rub (a screen on a defender) for Kenzel. I ended up being open.”
It was a timely score in that it lifted the UW to within three points of Stanford, 17-13. It was also noteworthy in that it was Fredrick’s first career touchdown reception as a college football player.
“That’s definitely going to be a memory that sticks with me, I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” said Fredrick, a Madison native. “But hopefully that is not the highlight of my career.
“I want to make bigger plays and more plays, whether it’s in this game (against South Carolina) or future games. I don’t want my career moment to be in my freshman year.
“I don’t want to be on the decline, I want to be on the incline.”
In 2012, as a redshirt freshman, Fredrick had 17 catches for 196 yards. He was the third-leading receiver on the Badgers behind Abbrederis (49 receptions) and Pedersen (27).
The numbers have dropped off this season for Fredrick, who has caught 10 passes for 106 yards; none longer than 19. He has only two catches over the last six games.
“You always want to do better than you did the year before,” said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Fredrick. “I’ve felt better out there even if the actual efficiency doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
“I feel like in the blocking game I’ve stepped up huge compared to last year. I’ve just felt so much more comfortable.”
Fredrick has excelled as a downfield blocker, a key component in the big-play success of the tailbacks. He has also tried to lead by example for some of the younger receivers, like Wheelwright.
“Rob is going to be a freak one day, he’s going to be a great player here,” praised Fredrick. “He’s a very positive kid and a great athlete and route-runner. He’s just getting better every day.”
As a true freshman, Wheelwright has experienced the typical growing pains. “But it’s been a great learning experience,” Wheelwright said, “going through the ups and downs of the season.”
Fredrick couldn’t help but notice how Wheelwright has handled himself, particularly since he was regarded as one of the bigger catches in Wisconsin’s recruiting class.
“The biggest thing is to not get down as a freshman,” Fredrick said, “and to not let that factor into how you perform and how you practice. It hasn’t for him, which is huge.
“I think that’s different from a lot of other freshman who have played early but have not played as much once the Big Ten season has gotten started. They kind of get down. But he’s not like that at all.
“He has been having some good bowl practices and it’s all about getting reps and trying to get better. He’s going to be a huge contributor in the future.”
There have been some adjustments to the level of competition for the 6-2, 198-pound Wheelwright, who had 26 touchdown catches during his prep career in Columbus, Ohio (Walnut Ridge).
“There were a few surprises at first,” admitted Wheelwright, whose older brother, Ernie, played at Minnesota (2004-2007) and still ranks as the fourth-leading receiver in Gophers history. Ernie Wheelwright had 159 catches for 2,434 yards and 26 scores.
“The game was a lot faster than I thought,” Rob Wheelwright said. Is it also fair to say that he struggled with his confidence as far as catching the ball consistently?
“That’s pretty fair,” he conceded. “Early on, I dropped the ball and I just wasn’t used to dropping it at all during my high school career; dropping the ball in front of 80,000 (people) kind of put me back a little bit.
“But now I’m starting to get my confidence back. Each and every practice I feel like I’m getting better. I’ve been kind of preparing myself for next season.”
In this context, Wheelwright says he has gone to school on Fredrick because “he doesn’t worry about the catches; he’s more of a team player. He just does his job; he goes out and blocks.”
He also has tried to absorb everything that he can from Abbrederis -- “He’s really helped me a lot” -- knowing that he will be one of the players expected to fill the void when Abbrederis moves on.
“Hopefully I’ll get a chance to play (against South Carolina),” Wheelwright said. “If I do get out there, I’ll try to make the best out of my opportunity on special teams and on offense.”
The Gamecocks’ secondary revolves around the lockdown skills of junior cornerback Victor Hampton, a second-team All-SEC pick; an underclassmen who’s planning on declaring for the NFL draft.
Hampton, who has three interceptions, will likely shadow Abbrederis. South Carolina’s other starting cornerback, Jimmy Legree, a fifth-year senior, has six career picks -- three this season.
“They’re physical and athletic; they’re SEC guys, for sure,” Fredrick observed. “It’s all about using our techniques to win. But we feel like we can compete in the pass game.”
Especially, it would seem, if another wide receiver, not named Abbrederis, can be a factor to whatever degree. “Abby is going to be Abby, which is great, like he always is,” Fredrick agreed.
Who, if anyone, will emerge out of his shadows; a long one, at that? Stay tuned.