Badgers seeking answers in passing game

MADISON, Wis. -- After watching a slew of incomplete passes during the first half of Saturday's scrimmage, a frustrated Bret Bielema yelled out, "Somebody step up at receiver. You'll play!"

Wisconsin's wideouts responded after that appeal from their head coach with some better play the rest of the day. Still, the limitations of the Badgers' passing game have been all too clear this spring.

Much of that was to be expected. The team no longer has quarterback Russell Wilson, who set an NCAA record for pass efficiency rating last year. Leading receiver Nick Toon will be selected by an NFL team sometime this weekend, and top returning pass-catcher Jared Abbrederis is out all spring with a foot injury.

A lack of experience from those throwing the ball and catching it has made for some ragged play at times by the offense this spring. The inconsistent play from the quarterbacks underscores the importance of Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien arriving this summer.

Redshirt freshman Joel Stave appears to have moved ahead of Joe Brennan for the No. 1 job right now, but neither can feel too secure. It sure looks like, for the second straight year, a transfer will come in and jump ahead of all the quarterbacks on campus. But with Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr hurt and incoming freshman Bart Houston likely headed for a redshirt year after shoulder surgery, Bielema felt he had little choice but to go the transfer route again.

"I don't think it's something [the returning quarterbacks] were high-fiving over," Bielema told ESPN.com. "But I was very open and honest about everything. I spoke to the team and said, 'Hey, the truth of the matter is we've got a really good football team. But that position just by pure numbers is weak. If Curt and Jon don't come back, we can't go into the season with just two healthy quarterbacks.'"

Like with Wilson, Bielema says he has not promised anything other than O'Brien can compete for the job. O'Brien cannot even receive a copy of the Wisconsin playbook until he enrolls. The quarterbacks on campus will try to beat him out.

"My reaction to it was it was nothing I could control," said Brennan, who backed up Wilson last year. "Obviously, it was what Coach Bielema felt needed to be done. I'm just focusing on getting better each day and what I have to do to improve. I feel I have the ability to play college football and be a leader on this team."

Even if O'Brien shores up the quarterback spot, the question of to whom he will throw remains in doubt.

Abbrederis should slide into the No. 1 receiver role after catching 55 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns last year. His season was even more impressive considering he hurt his left foot in the fourth game of the season and played through discomfort all season. Doctors discovered he had a fracture after the Rose Bowl, which should heal through rest.

"If I have any more problems, maybe we'll do something after the season," he said. "If worse comes to worse, I'll just play with it again this year."

His absence has allowed younger receivers to get a lot of reps this spring, and they need them. Each has had moments but not enough of them in a row. A perfect example came in last week's scrimmage, when promising sophomore Marquis Mason caught a long pass to set the team up in the red zone, then jogged to the sidelines to take himself out. Wisconsin coaches were planning on calling a fade to the end zone for him.

Mason needs to develop toughness and to get over the mental hurdles presented by knee surgery last year. The good news is he's 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds. With him and 6-foot-5 sophomore Chase Hammond, the Badgers have the kind of tall, athletic receivers they've lacked over the years. Smaller guys like sophomore Isaiah Williams and the 5-foot-8 Kenzel Doe have shown flashes this spring as well.

Abbrederis is there to give advice to the youngsters, though he's not pestering them with coaching.

"I try to let them go out and play and not yell," he said. "When I was playing, I never liked the guy that sat out who wasn't doing all the hard work with me and then would be like, 'Hey, let's get going. Why aren't you running fast?' Well, I'd been running for like 20 days, and I'm tired."

Wisconsin has a long time before its passing game has to round into form, and it will have some pieces that are missing this spring. But for the Badgers to repeat as Leaders Division champs, they'll have to solve some issues at quarterback and receiver.