LOS ANGELES — When the University of Wisconsin football team ended three weeks of preseason camp, most of the players headed out to let off a little steam.
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni sent his players off with the customary warnings.
"After three straight weeks, the boys are going to let loose a little bit," Azzanni said. "It's human nature. They've been cooped up here. We're not dumb, it's college. 'Be smart, be careful.' "
That night, Azzanni went home and told his wife there was one player he didn't have to worry about.
"I sat on the couch with my wife at 10 o'clock at night and said, 'Isn't it nice to sit here knowing my star player is rolled up on a couch watching a movie with his wife and not Downtown getting in trouble or something like that?' " Azzanni said. "So, the stress level is way down."
Junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis is one of only a few of football players at UW in recent years who is married. It shows up in more ways than just having his position coach rest easy on Saturday nights.
Midway through what has turned into a one-and-done season for Azzanni — who is leaving after Tuesday's Rose Bowl against Stanford to coach receivers at Tennessee — he told Abbrederis what a treat it has been to coach him.
"I'm hard on my guys," Azzanni said. "I pulled him right up to me (before a midseason game), looked him in the eye and said, 'Hey, man, I enjoy coaching the heck out of you. I mean that.'
"He's so fun to coach. He takes coaching and gets better every week. I know a lot of people may not see it, but he has really taken his game to the next level."
It has been a monumental year for Abbrederis: A former walk-on, he went on scholarship in January; was married on May 26; and continued his rise as one of the best receivers in the Big Ten Conference, being named a consensus All-Big Ten first-team selection.
On a team that has started three quarterbacks and struggled at times in the passing game, Abbrederis has been highly productive. He has 46 receptions for 793 yards and five touchdowns despite missing a game and a half due to a concussion.
He ranks sixth among Football Bowl Subdivision players with an average of 16.7 yards per catch. Georgia's Tavarres King is the leader at 18.4.
But Abbrederis will tell you his biggest catch came when he married the former Rachel Otto.
"I knew the day I met her, she was the one for me," Abbrederis said. "So there was no real need in waiting. It was right for both of us."
Abbrederis met his future wife at a Bible study class in September 2010. She grew up in Stevens Point, went to cosmetology school in Iowa to become a hair stylist and had recently moved to Madison to begin work.
They hardly spoke to each other the night they met, mostly just small talk, but Abbrederis told a teammate who went to the Bible study group with him, linebacker Ethan Armstrong, that he was going to marry that girl.
"I think a big part for us is our faith," Rachel said. "He said, walking away the first night, he felt like God was saying, 'This is right.' Both of us were at the right place for something to happen."
Everyone in the Bible study class had to reveal three things about themselves. Abbrederis, who grew up in Wautoma, talked about the importance of his faith, his family and his love for the outdoors. It struck a chord with Rachel, especially the faith aspect.
"Both of us are super involved in our relationships with God," she said. "That's a huge connection, off the bat, because a lot of people our age aren't as involved in faith-based things."
It didn't take long for their relationship to get serious. They got engaged after six months.
Rachel, 22, laughed when she revealed a softer side of her husband she said few people know about. He set up a scavenger hunt in his hometown for the proposal.
The first clue took Rachel to his church. The sixth and final clue was at a renovated barn. There were rose petals leading down a hallway and up a staircase to Abbrederis, who was dressed up and proposed.
They were married 14 months later in Abbrederis' hometown church and the reception was in the renovated barn. Armstrong and UW quarterback Jon Budmayr stood up in the wedding.
Abbrederis' schedule is full, between classes and putting in as many as 50 hours a week with football, counting individual time for film study, according to Rachel. She enjoys being part of his support group and making his life easier by doing his laundry or having a meal prepared when he gets home.
She works late a couple of nights a week, beyond 9 p.m., so time together is precious. That helps them enjoy every minute they get together.
"Someone told us during premarital counseling ... it's not about the quantity of time, it's about the quality of time," Rachel said. "It's so true. We don't need to spend every second of the day together, if we can make the hour we get, time that's meant for us — whether it's doing something purposeful or watching TV doing nothing, it's how you make that time."
They live in an apartment off campus on the near West side. In the summer, they host barbecues or pool parties for players and their girlfriends, or just have another couple over to play board games.
"Having a night where you're talking and interacting, doing different things they're not used to, just a chance to break away from campus and have a break from college for a minute," Rachel said.
Working to improve
On the field, Azzanni has had a big influence on Abbrederis. Despite being the focal point of opposing defenses, Abbrederis has become such a polished route runner he continues to get open. If anything, his numbers could be even better if the quarterbacks had gotten him the ball when he's been open.
"First off, he's really working on his routes and body position, how to get himself in and out of a break," Azzanni said. "That has been noticeable, getting separation on DBs.
"Last year, he was just kind of playing. He probably could have had a lot more catches last year had he been working on that stuff a little more."
Abbrederis is so hard on himself he repeats everything he needs to do in practice as many times as it takes until he gets it just right.
Always a tenacious blocker, that part of his game also has improved. His attitude toward blocking sets the standard for the position and has shown up in many of the long runs by backs this season.
"He's taken his blocking to another level," Azzanni said. "He's always been a pest. He was a pest last year on the perimeter. His hand placement and angles, things people don't see that I harp on him about ... that's all helping."
Abbrederis remains as humble as ever about his accomplishments. He never acts like a football star.
"I think the best thing about his character is how much he genuinely cares about people," Rachel said. "You can throw him in any situation and he'll be so charismatic with everyone, but he's the type of person, if you see one person who's not talking or hanging out with someone, he'll be there talking to him."
It's not so much his humble beginning as a walk-on that leads him to be that way, as much as his belief that he's accomplishing none of this by himself. Abbrederis writes the words "Holy Spirit" on his gloves to remind himself of why he's playing football.
"It shows, even on the field," Rachel said. "He's not trying to reflect it's him doing this stuff, it's God doing it through him, to bring Him more glory."