MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Luke Fickell seemingly faced quite the challenge when he took over at Wisconsin and tried attracting receivers to a program known for running the ball.
Turns out it wasn’t much of a problem at all. The arrival of former Ole Miss and North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo with his Air Raid offense suddenly made Wisconsin a much more intriguing destination.
Longo’s hire as offensive coordinator meant Wisconsin was going to need to add more receivers. The Badgers did just that by landing CJ Williams from Southern California and Bryson Green from Oklahoma State, while Will Pauling and Quincy Burroughs followed Fickell from Cincinnati to Wisconsin.
“It’s one of the deepest rooms of receivers I’ve had in a long time,” Longo said Tuesday, a day before the Badgers begin training camp at Platteville, Wisconsin. “I don’t know who the elite guys are yet. That will get established this year, obviously, with how productive they are. But you go down and look at receivers seven, eight and nine, and you’re excited about the future that they could have. That obviously bodes well for us.”
That type of receiving depth is unusual for Wisconsin, which hasn’t had two wideouts accumulate at least 500 yards receiving in the same year since Jared Abbrederis and Nick Toon each exceeded 900 yards in their 2011 Big Ten championship season.
Wisconsin did have two 500-yard receivers in 2013, 2016 and 2017, but one of them was a tight end in each of those years (Jacob Pedersen in 2013, Troy Fumagalli in 2016 and 2017). Chimere Dike had 47 catches for 689 yards last season, becoming the first Wisconsin wideout to exceed the 500-yard mark since Quintez Cephus in 2019.
Dike returns for Wisconsin along with Skyler Bell (30 catches, 444 yards) and Keontez Lewis (20-313), but the Badgers needed plenty more wideouts to run Longo’s offense effectively.
Fickell’s staff wasted no time getting them. Fickell’s connection with the two Cincinnati receivers helped, but the Air Raid’s reputation also played a major role.
“I think that combination of things – trusting and believing in you as a person and a coach – combined with there’s a uniqueness here, there are opportunities that may be different than a lot of other places,” Fickell said. “I think the combination of those things gave us an opportunity to kind of beef up and add some guys into that room in particular.”
Williams arguably is the most notable example.
Rated as the nation’s No. 73 overall prospect in his high school class according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports, Williams rated Wisconsin among his top 10 schools, but didn’t consider the Badgers seriously enough to make an official visit.
“I think at that current time and place, I didn’t see myself fitting into that Wisconsin offense,” Williams said. “I don’t think a lot of receivers did, high-rated guys did.”
That changed in a year’s time.
Williams had entered the transfer portal after spending one year at USC. Wisconsin had brought in the Air Raid and was planning to restock at quarterback by adding SMU career passing leader Tanner Mordecai and bringing in Nick Evers from Oklahoma and Braedyn Locke from Mississippi State.
The idea Wisconsin would install a more balanced offense had Williams eager to head north.
“I came in here with an open mind,” Williams said. “The proof is in the pudding. That’s exactly what Coach Longo told me when I came in. We watched a lot of film of his offense at North Carolina. He was like, we’re going to run the football. Any good school in the nation’s going to run the football, whether you’re Georgia, whether you’re USC, whether you’re Florida or Texas. You’re going to run the football. But at the end of the day, we want to throw the football as well. He made sure that’s something he brought to emphasis to me.”
Wisconsin has plenty of other talented newcomers, too.
Longo already knew Green well after trying to recruit him to Ole Miss and North Carolina. He instead started out at Oklahoma State and caught 36 passes for 584 yards last season. Pauling and Burroughs should benefit from their familiarity with Fickell after playing for him at Cincinnati.
“I know this,” Longo said. “We needed more than the seven that were here to keep the mileage off their legs and to keep them all fresh. To have the 11 or 12 we have now is a good thing for us.”