Rookie receiver gives run-heavy Badgers new look

by Brian Stensaas

It’s a fear that runs through the head of every coach, player and fan of sports teams. A fear people try to block out, but it remains present.

What happens if your star player gets hurt playing in a meaningless game?

Last April, Wisconsin’s football team was forced to come to grips with this fear. Playing in the annual Cardinal-White spring game at Camp Randall Stadium, All-American receiver Lee Evans tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Once hopeful for a mid-season return, the team announced last month that Evans, a senior, would not return this season.

While some might view the setback as terminal, redshirt freshman Jonathan Orr wasn’t about to hang his head and sulk. The 6-foot-3, 182-pound young receiver from Detroit instead saw Evans’ injury as a chance to prove himself.

In 12 games this season, Orr leads Wisconsin with 806 yards receiving, a freshman record. His eight touchdowns are one behind the school’s single-season record.

Orr tops the Big Ten in freshman receiving and is second in the nation behind USC freshman Mike Williams.

Saturday in Madison, Orr will again be in the spotlight as the Badgers (6-6, 1-6 Big Ten) not only attempt to become bowl eligible against Minnesota (7-4, 3-4), but try and reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Orr did not return several phone messages left for this story.

What sets Orr off from the rest is his blazing speed. On a frequent basis, Orr will bump at the line only to tear away from the defensive secondary and make a play.

On Nov. 2 at Iowa, the Badgers mustered a season-low 215 yards of total offense en route to a 20-3 loss at Kinnick Stadium. Despite the poor showing on offense, Orr managed to grab six receptions for 83 yards.

“He’s a talented young guy, got some speed,” Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker said. “He can beat you if you’re not careful. He’s definitely one of the young receivers in this league.”

For Badgers’ coach Barry Alvarez – who has seen a conference record 10-straight years of Wisconsin 1,000-yard rushers in his tenure – a well-rounded young receiver is a welcomed addition.

“Jon’s become our go-to guy,” Alvarez said. “He’s really gifted. He has long arms, real rangy and he’s really developing as a receiver. You can see him improve. He’s progressed real well for us.”

Should Orr haul in 84 receiving yards Saturday against Minnesota, he will break the Big Ten freshman receiving record set by Northwestern’s D’Wayne Bates in 1995. Gophers cornerback Michael Lehan has seen Orr on film and knows stopping him will be no easy task.

“Their receiving corps isn’t as deep without Lee Evans, but the younger guys are stepping up and filling his role,” Lehan said. “(Orr) is like another Lee Evans. He’s got the tremendous speed. Corralling him is definitely going to be a key for us.”

Evans has until Jan. 15 to decide whether or not he’ll opt into the NFL draft or return to Wisconsin for a fifth season. Orr, on the other hand, has up to three seasons left, making Wisconsin personnel optimistic.

“He’s just starting to scratch the surface,” Alvarez said. “He’ll get much stronger. He’s got a tremendous frame, and I think you’ll see him fill out, adding additional strength to make him that much better.”

Brian Stensaas covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]