- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Two springs ago, a walk-on wide receiver with a funny name began generating buzz at Wisconsin's practice.
Some who watched Jared Abbrederis quickly brought up the name Luke Swan, another Badgers walk-on receiver who eventually became a starter and a team captain. Two years later, the comparisons don't seem far off at all.
"That feels like it was a decade ago," Abbrederis recently told ESPN.com. "It's crazy how it works. I feel so much older, so much more confident on the field and with this team. Now I'm just trying to get better."
He'll start by getting healthy as a toe injury has sidelined him for the start of spring drills. Abbrederis played through the injury for part of last season but will sit for a chunk of spring ball to fully heal.
When he does, he'll move into a new role as Wisconsin's No. 1 wide receiver. The Badgers must replace top wideout Nick Toon (64 catches, 926 yards, 10 touchdowns), and with a new, yet-to-be-named starting quarterback stepping in, they need a big year from Abbrederis, who led Wisconsin with 933 receiving yards and finished second in both receptions (55) and touchdown receptions (8).
While Abbrederis (pronounced ab-bruh-DAIR-is) already has far exceeded expectations for a former walk-on -- he received a scholarship in January -- Wisconsin will lean on the junior even more in 2012.
"I miss not being out there, attacking the defense and having fun, playing football," he said. "I'm excited to get back and be that No. 1 guy."
For now, he's helping Wisconsin's younger receivers and the walk-ons who dream of following his path. He's also getting acquainted with Wisconsin's revamped offensive staff, which features four new assistants, including coordinator Matt Canada and receivers coach Zach Azzanni.
Although the Badgers' offensive structure will remain more or less in place, Azzanni is bringing a different voice to the receiver room.
"He's really big on fundamentals," Abbrederis said. "In order to run a dig, we'll have three different steps into it. It's good to have some new advice coming because I’ve been around the other coaches for three, four years. Now if I get a new set of ideas in here, I can take my game to another level."
Abbrederis elevated his play in 2011, more than doubling his totals for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns from the previous season. Arguably no player benefited more from quarterback Russell Wilson's arrival than Abbrederis, an outside speed threat who thrived in Wisconsin's dynamic downfield passing game. The lone downside: Wilson's arrival from NC State prevented Abbrederis from getting a scholarship sooner.
Wilson is gone now, and while Abbrederis likes what he sees from Wisconsin's quarterbacks early in spring ball, there is plenty of uncertainty under center.
"People are going to grow up, younger guys are going to step up," he said. "That's what college football is all about."
Wisconsin's success is largely about players like Abbrederis, who had no FBS offers coming out of high school despite leading Wautoma High to a state title in football and twice winning state titles and setting the state record in the 110-meter hurdles. Wisconsin invited him to walk on at receiver but also play some quarterback on the scout team.
Three years later, he's the Big Ten's leading returning receiver entering the 2012 season. He also excels as a punt returner, leading the Big Ten and ranking third nationally in average runback (15.8 ypr).
Abbrederis played quarterback and defensive back at Wautoma, and the coaches didn't want to risk him as a return man. Wisconsin had no such reservations, and Abbrederis returned seven punts in 2010 before becoming the primary returner last fall.
"It was kind of like being a quarterback in the shotgun," he said. "You've got all these guys coming to you, and you've got to try and make them miss. Once you make one or two of them miss, you should have the whole field to go score. So it kind of comes natural."
Abbrederis should return to the field before the end of spring practice. He'll then take an important step off the field May 26, when he gets married. Abbrederis has received some marital tips from Wilson, who tied the knot in January. Badgers coach Bret Bielema, whose wedding took place earlier this month, might be another resource.
"We haven't talked about it yet," Abbrederis said. "I figure I'll leave him alone for a little bit. Maybe once I get married, I can take some advice."
Indeed, the spring of 2010 feels long ago. But Abbrederis is focused on the future, and helping Wisconsin maintain the momentum it has generated with back-to-back Big Ten titles.
"Growing up as a Wisconsin kid, you want to see the Badgers do well," he said. "It’s something that weighs heavily on me. I've got to make sure we keep this tradition going."
Abbrederis already has.
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