It’s easy to forget wide receivers Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor joined the University of Wisconsin football team less than a year ago.
The two were more game-ready than most anticipated when arriving on campus last summer and both saw the field as true freshmen just weeks after their first collegiate practice. With an entire season now behind them, they’re developing a different level of poise this spring that may have not been fully present during a hectic start to their careers.
“I think the best way I can put it is, they belong,” UW wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore said. “A.J. was a young man that played a lot of running back more so than receiver (in high school). (Cephus) was a basketball player. He’s further along than any of us thought he would be. So I think now, that body language reflects confidence. I think they feel good about what they’re doing and know that they can do this.”
Taylor and Cephus, along with classmate Kendric Pryor, who redshirted last season, could be counted on more often in their second year after the departure of Rob Wheelwright.
Cephus stands as the most likely to take Wheelwright’s place in the starting lineup opposite Jazz Peavy, taking first-team reps during spring practice and performing as consistently as any pass catcher on the team. Gilmore even said UW expects Cephus to take that role, but he still must own that responsibility and hold onto the job throughout the offseason.
Pryor and Taylor are fighting for significant playing time at the No. 3 receiver spot with senior George Rushing.
“They’re all a little bit different, where they’re at with it,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “(Pryor), it’s been good to get a lot of reps and be able to get back, that second half of your redshirt year, you’re doing so much scout team. I think A.J. and (Cephus), they’ve got a little bit of that experience.
“Probably (Cephus) and A.J. are a little more comfortable with the plays. But they’re young. This is their first spring. I think guys that are in their first spring and second spring, they’re still figuring it out. I think they’re doing everything they can to help themselves.”
Cephus and Taylor have a leg up on Pryor, though his spring performance has rivaled the others thus far.
The two more experienced youngsters didn’t necessarily break out as freshmen — they combined for seven catches on the year — but simply getting those on-field reps rather than starting on the scout team may have accelerated their growth.
“I think it helped a lot because I got to learn the speed of the game. I got to learn the details of the game,” Taylor said. “I feel like I’m a lot more comfortable with the offense. The game, it’s actually starting to slow down a lot more.”
The three second-year players — along with Rushing and Peavy — give UW reason to believe its wide receiver group could start the upcoming season with more depth and more viable options than in previous seasons. Gilmore said he believes he could have five or six play a role at the position by fall.
That still hasn’t come to fruition yet, but the potential for greater things is there.
“I like the room,” Gilmore said. “That ‘P’ word, potential. I like that. Now, it’s got to be a collective effort and I’ve got to do my job and they’ve got to do their job and hopefully we can get to that point where we do have some depth and we’re not relying on one or two guys. If somebody goes down, we shouldn’t be handcuffed in how we call the game. I think we can have that.”“Are we there yet? No. But that’s what we’re striving for. That’s what we’re trying to get to, to be able to put a few guys out on the field and not miss a beat.”