On his Shoulders

Gilreath heads to the end zone at NW (Fedie/09)

While the new schemes from the new special teams coaches are getting a positive vibe from the players, senior wide receiver/kick returned David Gilreath knows that, as the face of the unit, he has to play with more confidence.

MADISON - As he found the alley way and sprinted for the end zone, David Gilreath could feel the big ape fall off his back.

Gilreath, who had been determined to return a kick or punt for a touchdown since coming to campus in 2007, finally accomplished that goal in the final game of the '09 regular season, taking a punt back 68 yards against Northwestern.

But while the ape has vanished, there is still a noticeable monkey on his shoulders.

On kickoffs last season, Gilreath averaged only 23.7 yards per return. On punts, he could only manage 5.6 yards. Take away that 68-yard return and Gilreath only managed 1.97 yards per return on his punts, numbers that annoy Gilreath like a pestering fly.

"When people think of Wisconsin returns, you think of me," Gilreath said. "When you see the numbers, you don't think of the coaches or the blockers, you think of me, and I take responsibility to get the job done."

To help Gilreath get the job done, Head Coach Bret Bielema has relinquished his role as special team's coach and assigned four of his assistants to handle the brunt of the work.

Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge, who Bielema originally wanted to name special teams coordinator when he first hired him, felt comfortable with the status of the defensive line to run both punt and kickoff coverage. Secondary Coach Chris Ash will handle punt return and punt block unit while Tight End Coach Joe Rudolph will handle kickoff return.

Rudolph first order of business on kickoff coverage was to come up with a new attack mode. With the NCAA eliminating all three-or-more man wedge formations, Rudolph emphasized finally the right matchups in certain schemes.

"We're just trying to be consistent, work within our technique, do a great job assignment wise and get the best guys out there," Rudolph said of his unit, which he also played on during his tenure at Wisconsin. "Most of it comes down to finding guys that can block one-on-one up front and do a great job coming together on the back end."

While Rudolph is trying to find a balance of back up and starters to intermingle, Gilreath has a much simpler way to combat the wedge.

"We've got Chris Borland running up the middle like a missile," Gilreath laughed. "I'll be running behind him."

Ash, much like his coaching style with the secondary, has taken a fundamentally-sound approach combined with a little aggressiveness, running punt blocking drills to put more pressure on the punt team. Only briefly watching what UW did on the unit last year, Ash's objectives are simple: catch every punt to get the ball safely back to the offense and create a big play every game with a big return or a block.

"If we are successful with technique and effort, we have a chance to be successful," Ash said. "It helps having a great return, because he can make guys miss, but if you can play with great technique and hold guys up on the line of scrimmage, you have a chance to be successful."

In order for Gilreath to find his form, he'll have to trust that his surgically-repaired feet are ready to go.

The injuries first came to Gilreath's attention before the ‘08 regular season finale against Cal Poly. A MRI during bowl preparation revealed stress fractures in each of Gilreath's feet that needed screws put in to stabilize the bones. Gilreath competed in the bowl loss to Florida State and even went through spring drills, choosing not to have the surgery until the first weekend of May.

While it wasn't the main factor, Gilreath does point to the lack of confidence in his legs that led to his toughest season in uniform. After having a breakout 31-catch, 520-yard, three-touchdown sophomore season, Gilreath could only manage 12 catches for 177 yards and no scores last year.

"It was more physical at first, but then it turned more mental," Gilreath said. "The whole time was mental because I kept wondering when I was going to get over this and when it would stop nagging me.

"I just couldn't perform at the level because of my uncertainty. I wasn't at the level to be performing and if I was one of the coaches, I wouldn't put me out either. After the bye week, I started to feel better and could be an every-down receiver, but I didn't get much of a chance to show it."

That has been the motivating factor for Gilreath this summer – to prove once and for all that he is more than a kick returner. Gilreath, who's biggest game on offense was his end around runs against Indiana his sophomore year, has spent the summer working with Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Herbert

"I am trying to put a consistent year together, whether it's watching more film or putting in more work after practice," Gilreath said. "I feel like the burst is there and it has naturally comeback with my feet healing. I've just kept pounding to get my conditioning back up there."

More import to his confidence, Gilreath believes the return units are headed in the right direction. For the figurehead of both groups, that is the ultimate fall-camp reward.

"We're making a lot of strides, but I put a lot of it on me," Gilreath said. "The coaches can draw up whatever they want, but it's my job. I don't know if Coach Bielema had enough time to put in all the details out there because face it, he's got a lot to worry about. These coaches are focused on one aspect and helping things come together."

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