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CFF Series - Wisconsin have found Josh Downs 2.0?
A name has emerged in the Wisconsin WR room...
After my wife and kids, the thing I love most are slot receivers.
- Phil Longo, Wisconsin offensive coordinator
The so-called ‘Dairy Raid’ is coming into full effect this autumn, and CFF managers everywhere have circled the Wisconsin football program in double thicc ink as a potential goldmine for hidden gems. We’ve been holding our breath anxiously awaiting to see which WR would emerge; some gravitated toward Chimera Dike, others—CJ Williams. But few planted their flags on Cincinnati transfer Will Pauling.
Now you might be saying something along the lines of “but VP, this is Wisconsin we’re talking about, the only value is in the RBs!”. Indeed, there was truth to that statement in a previous era—a forgotten, yet mystical time in CFB (last season). Tales of Wisconsin’s rotund 2010s rushing attacks still echo the halls of CFF royalty. This program’s lore is entrenched into the fabric of college football, so much so that anybody, anywhere, who has watched even a little bit of college football, could tell you the identity of this program. That’s powerful, and a testament to their consistency in philosophy and approach towards football.
But they have since made a change—a pretty major one at that. Not only was the former head coach—Paul Chryst replaced, but the Badger brass brought in a new OC as well. Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell was hired on as the head coach, and one of his first hires was bringing in Phil Longo over from UNC. You might have heard of the Tarheels’ potent offence last season via Drake Maye and Josh Downs—yes, Longo is bringing that offence to Madison.
It will be an adjustment for all involved, there’s no doubt. One major difference will be the percentage of pass vs. run plays executed. In 2022, Longo’s QB—Drake Maye, attempted 517 passes in 14 games. That’s an average of about 37 per game. It’s also a testament to the fact that UNC was likely running plays at a much faster rate than what a program like Wisconsin would typically do. To provide some more perspective, UNC’s total rushing attempts in 2022 was 496. That’s a split of about 49/51 in favour of the pass. So while this won’t be an air-raid offence by any means, it will be very balanced.
Compare that to Wisconsin’s 2022 tendencies (25 passes and 38.5 rushes per game), which is about a 60/40 split in favour of the run. That means there will probably be more opportunity for CFF relevant WRs now. But which one to target? Well, I’ve bolded Pauling’s name above for a reason. So make yourself comfortable, and grab some cheese while you’re at it, as we head on over to the Badger state for today’s profile.
Phil Longo has a stellar track record with slot receivers
New OC Phil Longo joins the Badger program by way of UNC, where he spent the last four seasons (2019-2022) OC’ing the Tarheels’ offence.
In 2022, his lead receiver—Josh Downs, caught 94 passes for 1029 yards and 11 TDs in 11 games (approx. 24 FPG in 1-ppr formats). Downs operated out of the slot position. Downs led the Tarheels in 2021 also, catching 101 passes for 1335 yards and 8 TDs in 13 games.
Prior to Downs, Dazz Newsome (5’10, 185) finished as the Tarheels’ WR2 in 2020, catching 54 passes for 684 yards and 6 TDs in 12 games (approx. 13.2 FPG). Newsome would have his best season a year prior (2019), however, as he would catch 72 passes for 1018 yards and 10 TDs in 12 games (approx. 19.5 FPG). Dyami Brown also went over 1000 yards from the boundary during this season (2019).
Before taking over as OC at UNC Longo occupied the same role at Ole Miss for two seasons (2017-2018). In 2018, Ole Miss’ leading receiver was boundary player AJ Brown (85-1320-6). The WR2 was 6’2 Demarkus Lodge (65-877-4), and the WR3 was a modestly sized DK Metcalf (26-569-5). All three of these cats are big dudes, so I don’t know who of these players was in the slot. There was WR4 Elijah Moore, who is definitely a slot receiver, who finished with 36 catches for 398 yards and two TDs. Ditto for the 2017 season, I don’t know who of those three (Brown, Lodge and Metcalf) occupied the slot in that offence, but those were the leading three.
In 2016, Longo’s tendency to feature the slot position shows once again. While OC at the FCS program Sam Houston State (2014-2016), Longo’s WR1 Louis Yedidiah (5’8, 187), caught 76 passes for 1152 yards and 14 TDs in 13 games (approx. 21 FPG) in the 2016 season. The Bearkats actually had two 1000-yard WRs that year, with boundary player Nathan Stewart (6’1, 170) catching 52 passes for 1004 yards and 12 TDs.
The season prior (2015), Yedidiah led the team with 71 catches for 994 yards and 7 TDs. And in Longo’s first season (2014) with Sam Houston, Yedidiah finished as the team’s WR2, catching 71 passes for 803 yards and a score.
Dialling things even further back, we see that Longo OC’d a program called ‘Slippery Rock’ (2012-2013), which is a Div. II school. The lead receiver in 2013—John Schademan (6’0, 195), caught 77 passes for 1484 yards and 15 TDs in 12 games. The slot receiver (as far as I can tell) in that offence caught 42 passes for 640 yards and 5 TDs, finishing as WR3. The 2012 season did not have any notable stat lines at WR.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s nine 1000-yard receivers in the last 10 seasons. Of those nine 1000-yard performances, we can reasonably infer that at least four of them came from the slot position (Downs in 2022, 2021; Newsome in 2019; and Yedidiah in 2016). There could be more in there, as I’m not entirely sure who was who for Slippery Rock during the 2013 and 2012 seasons (yes, even I am not that sick…). Same deal with Ole miss in 2018 and 2017.
And if the numbers are not enough to paint a picture for you, the quote at the top of the article from the man himself is an insightful one.
WR Will Pauling — 5’10, 186
Pauling began his college football career with the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2021. He played sparingly in his freshman season, registering almost no stats receiving. In 2022, he played in nine games, registering 12 receptions (23 targets) for 122 yards (2.7 FPG in 1-ppr). He has yet to score his first collegiate TD, but figures to change that in 2023 after following his old head coach to Wisconsin.
The former three-star prospect from Illinois now finds himself in the advantageous position that is the slot receiver in new Wisconsin OC Phil Longo’s offence. Here’s an excerpt from a rivals report covering the WR room:
Pauling put together one of the best performances of spring ball. By the time all 15 practices had wrapped up, he had a firm grasp on the starting slot position, overtaking Skyler Bell.
"He's just done a good job. He studies the game, he works really really hard at it," Brown told reporters this spring. "I think he's done a good job in his transition, I think he's been able to catch on pretty fast. Obviously being with me for the last couple years, the drills and things like that are the same that we've been doing, so that stuff is kinda second nature to him."
During spring practices, Pauling displayed his elite twitch and coupled that with maybe the most reliable hands of any receiver this spring. His rapid rise to the top of the depth chart was somewhat surprising to onlookers, but far from surprising to those that know him the best, like Burroughs (former teammate at Cincinnati).
“At Cincinnati, he was easily one of the better receivers on our team, he just had an older guy in front of him who was really good,” Burroughs said of his roommate. “I’ve always seen his potential…he was always a baller.”
For Pauling, the key will be staying healthy. Injuries were one of the main reasons his career at Cincinnati was fragmented, and he only appeared in 11 games over the course of his first two seasons. If he can stay healthy, however, Pauling showed the staff during the spring he has the potential to be a dangerous weapon for Phil Longo's offense.
Longo himself was quoted on the record this summer speaking highly about Pauling:
He's a mismatch for a lot of people. We can do a lot of things with him.
By the sounds of things, Pauling is going to be a key cog in this offence. Given the history of production coming through Longo’s offence, I think he could be a great value in drafts.
I’ve not been impressed with what I’ve seen out of QB Tanner Mordecai this offseason. I had hoped that the new setting would be a renaissance for him, but a poor spring game performance has me in doubt. Mordecai was good at SMU in 2021, but streaky in 2022. I am not sure what to expect from at this level of play—but I am not very optimistic.
I am also skeptical of how effective Longo’s implementation of the new offence will be in year one. It’s also easier to feature WRs in the ACC and SEC. Despite what Ohio State has done in recent years, I don’t like that Wisconsin will be playing in inclement weather down the stretch of the season, likely blunting the value of a player like Will Pauling when you need him most in CFF.
Pauling’s current ADP is 231.7 (around the 19th round of 12-team drafts). My opinion of Pauling is that I think he’s worth a shot in a standard CFF re-draft league; I’ll likely look for him as a last round pickup in my regular drafts.
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