The process of developing chemistry with his receivers on the University of Wisconsin football team was a pretty simple one, according to Jack Coan.
The junior quarterback gave them most of the credit for development.
“I’d say it was easy because we’ve got a great group of receivers,” Coan said this week as the No. 13 Badgers (2-0) prepared to face No. 11 Michigan (2-0) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. “Obviously, they’re great players, but they’re even better people. So just in the offseason, working out with them and getting on the field, throwing routes to them, they work so hard and it was a lot of fun for me.”
Coan produced 564 yards and five touchdowns through the air in blowout wins over South Florida and Central Michigan. He’s completed 76.3 percent of his passes and has done a stellar job of spreading the ball around to a group that doesn’t seem to mind who’s getting the ball.
When junior Quintez Cephus returned to the team in August after being suspended all of last season, UW wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore spoke to his players about the importance of putting aside egos.
Having Cephus back in the lineup gives the Badgers a true No. 1 receiver, something they lacked in 2018, and obviously is a boost to the offense. But it also likely means fewer opportunities for fellow receivers A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis.
“Something coach Gil talked to us about once Q got back is we’re going to have to be selfless,” Pryor said. “We’re always happy, no one’s ever pouted from not getting the ball. But it’s just more real now with Q being back.
“Whenever your number is called, it’s just being able to make that play. It’s a competitive mindset. Everyone is going to want the ball and there’s only one ball, but just having that selfless attitude and just being close as brothers helps us push this group even more.”
It’s worth noting Cephus has been swarmed by his teammates after big plays, including 36- and 46-yard touchdown receptions vs. Central Michigan.
It helps that Coan has been able to get everyone involved. Cephus leads the team with 13 targets, but five others have at least six targets through two games: A.J. Taylor (nine), Pryor (eight), tailback Jonathan Taylor (seven), tight end Jake Ferguson (seven) and Davis (six).
“It’s great,” Cephus said. “We all know that we have a chance to get the ball when we’re in. It gives us the challenge of getting open and winning fast. It’s definitely helping our receiving group, the way Jack is playing.”
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Cephus could only watch from afar in 2018, when the passing game struggled mightily. Among the low points was a 38-13 loss at Michigan in which UW had just 25 passing yards with less than 5 minutes to go in the game after going nearly three full quarters of action without a completion.
Now Coan has replaced Alex Hornibrook under center, Cephus is back and the rest of the receiving corps has had some pressure removed from its shoulders.
“I hope it humbled everybody, including myself, because at the end of the day no one cares what you did last game, no one cares what you did the last year,” Gilmore said in camp when asked about UW’s struggles through the air in 2018. “It’s a new opportunity for everybody.”
Gilmore wasn’t thrilled when UW’s top four receivers unleashed a nickname for themselves — the “Fatal Four” — at media day in 2018. Not long after, Cephus was suspended from the team after being charged with sexually assaulting two women.
A go-to receiver never emerged for the Badgers. Davis had 40 catches for 418 yards and five touchdowns, Ferguson was next with 36 catches for 456 yards and four touchdowns and A.J. Taylor finished with 32 receptions for a team-high 521 yards with three scores.
The talent in the wide receivers room — and the collective mood of the group — got a boost when Cephus rejoined the team last month after being found not guilty by a Dane County jury.
“We’ve just been doing our job, making plays and we’ve kind of got our ‘Fatal Four’ back,” Pryor said this week. “We’re definitely starting to get that swagger back that we had a couple years ago.”
That’s swagger, not selfishness, the point Gilmore drove home in his message to the receivers after Cephus’ return.
“I think this group’s talked a lot about the overall focus that you have to have as a group and knowing that if you’re all in each play, it’s going to come your way at different times,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “I think Ted’s done a great job of helping them along that path, but they’ve embraced it.”
Nobody’s happier than Coan, who has plenty of weapons at his disposal and no egos with which to contend.
“They don’t care who’s getting the ball,” Coan said. “They want each other to succeed so much, so it’s pretty cool.”