Wide receivers on the University of Wisconsin football team left the 2020 season unsatisfied.
Not just with their play, but how the year was derailed by injuries and COVID-19 issues. It's a feeling that lingers and won't truly be shaken off until the group once again can prove themselves on the field. The first opportunity to do so doesn't come until UW hosts Penn State on Sept. 4 in the season opener.
The Badgers' receivers are using a lost year as motivation for a pivotal set of spring practices for the position group.
"It wasn't working out for us as a whole group," Davis said April 14. "We have that and we use that as an edge, as a fire for us. We want to be better and we will be better. We for sure use that as fuel."
Davis and fellow senior Kendric Pryor were sidelined for a majority of last season with concussions. Davis only played in the first two games of the season, while Pryor played the first two then part of a loss against Indiana.
It was a frustrating stretch in which both players had to watch the Badgers struggle in the passing game, finishing second to last in the Big Ten Conference in yards per game through the air.
"Throughout my athletic career, since I've started playing, I think that might have been the longest I've ever missed sitting out games," Pryor said. "For me, it was different just knowing that I could be out there making plays, or me and Danny could be out there making plays, helping the offense just push through the weird year that we're having."
Receivers coach Alvis Whitted, who started at UW just before the pandemic shut down campus last spring, said the Badgers didn't have their best downfield threats and their most experienced players without Davis and Pryor.
Davis, Pryor and senior Jack Dunn all opted to use the extra year of eligibility afforded them by the NCAA and returned to the Badgers for the 2021 season. Dunn started down the stretch of the season and finished second on the team with 29 catches, 255 yards and a touchdown. That trio gives the Badgers a good deal of experience in the room and mentors for a promising young group that includes sophomore Chimere Dike and redshirt freshman Devin Chandler.
"Just having those guys out there being able to practice and get the reps and a little bit of the new things that were going on on offense, you can see the confidence building," Whitted said.
Davis and Pryor have been in and out of the lineup during spring practices, going through individual drills but sitting out the full-team periods. But the reps they're getting against UW's top defensive backs in group sessions are vital, according to Whitted.
"Going against our defense every day, I think, is invaluable because we set some of the hardest looks that we'll see," he said.
During Whitted's interview process with UW coach Paul Chryst, he met with Davis and Pryor, two leaders of the position Whitted was looking to coach. He quickly earned their trust — his resume includes nine years in the NFL as a receiver, guiding former All-Americans like Michael Gallup and Rashard Higgins and coaching the Green Bay Packers' receivers for a season.
Whitted told his two seniors that he wasn't looking to leave UW, and he wanted to coach them through a full offseason and season. The bond he formed with them factored into their decisions to return for another season of college football.
"I just had faith in coach Whit and when I first met him, I could tell that was somebody that I can trust and that was genuinely a good person," Davis said. "So I love the dude and I can't wait to keep learning from him. As soon as I met him, I knew that that was a guy that I want to learn from and that he could take me to the next level with some of the stuff he knew."
Added Pryor: "He's coached guys where I'm trying to get — All-American and top receivers in the NFL, and he's played receiver as well. That was the thing as we talked to him, just how he was talking to us and the things he was saying, it caught my attention in my head, just me wanting to learn from him."
Practices this month have been a slight return to normalcy for the Badgers receivers, a far cry from the days this fall when large parts of the team might be held out due to contact tracing. They're working on timing and communication with sophomore Graham Mertz and the rest of the quarterbacks. UW needs Davis and Pryor to provide big-play ability on the outside as the rest of the group comes along.
If they're able to avoid the injury pitfalls of a year ago, the depth of knowledge and improving relationship they have with Mertz could lead to big things for the UW offense.
"(We can be) explosive, man," Davis said. "It's not even just me and Kendric. We've got Jack, we've got Chim, we've got A.J. Abbott, Devin Chandler. We've got a bunch of guys that's all coming together. It's been fun for me. ... I know we all can make plays, but seeing them younger guys make those plays and practice and just compete, I just love it so far."
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