MADISON - Bret Bielema has always been quick to point out that his Wisconsin offense is better when Nick Toon is playing at a high level.
Now that the Badgers have coasted through their four non-conference warm-ups, it's apparent Toon is living up to, and maybe even exceeding, his capabilities.
"He's healthy," Bielema said. "He plays big, he's catching the ball as well as he can with his hands. There are very few things getting near his body. When he's healthy and is playing well he's as good as any wide receiver in the country."
The 6-foot-3 senior tied a career high with seven receptions Saturday. In doing so, he established a new career high with 155 yards receiving. He was making one-handed grabs, he was tip-toeing down the sideline for a 59-yard touchdown reception and he was diving in the end zone to haul in two touchdowns for the second consecutive week.
To put it bluntly, he was special.
"It was a good day," Toon said following UW's 59-10 win over the Coyotes. "Hopefully I'll be able to keep that going. My job is to catch the ball so whenever the ball comes my way I'm going to do whatever I can to catch it."
Midway through the first quarter, senior quarterback Russell Wilson lofted a pass toward Toon during a first and 10 play from the South Dakota 37 yard line. Toon, who was nestled securely between three Coyotes defenders somehow reached up and reeled in the pass with one hand.
Not only did he make the circus catch look rather easy, he also managed to get a foot down to validate it.
Always modest in character, Toon simply shrugged when asked to break that play down following the win.
"It was a little bit of a high ball," Toon said. "I just saw it in the air and just kind of reached up and grabbed the ball."
It certainly can't be that easy for the senior playmaker, but he's sure making it look the part. He's already caught 21 passes, he's already over 350 yards receiving and he's already scored five touchdowns.
Match those numbers up with his breakout sophomore year and Toon is on pace to shatter his career bests. In 2009 Toon had 18 catches for 236 yards and two touchdowns through four games, well below what he's done as a senior.
Look at the 2010 season. Toon only had 459 receiving yards in a frustratingly long and injury riddled year. He'll easily surpass that in 2011 and he might do so against Nebraska.
"He's doing a great job," Wilson said. "That's a testament to his hard work, his talent and every single day in practice going 100 percent. That's what we need."
That's easily apparent.
Toon describes a good blocking receiver as someone who "executes a block so that their man doesn't make a play."
So far this season, at least on a large number of UW's bigger and more memorable runs, (Wilson's 45-yard rush in the opener and James White's 49-yard scamper against South Dakota) there's a great chance Toon has been involved as a blocker.
That's probably something that wouldn't have been quite as evident earlier in his career.
"I wouldn't give it an A-plus," Toon said. "There's definitely some things we can improve on, but we've been good. You can never stop improving and working on things that will allow you to have success."
That success, as measured by his career to this point in Madison, may have an opportunity to reach new heights Saturday night on the prime stage. With four catches Toon would pass his father, Al Toon, and move into fourth place on the Badgers all-time list of receptions.
Toon, with at least eight games left to play this season, already ranks eighth in the UW history book for career receiving yards. There's plenty of room for him to move up.
But judging by the way he's approached his final season in Madison it would be fair to say he's not thinking of individual accolades.
"It's not really something that is on my mind," Toon said. "Obviously it's a huge week next week and I'm looking forward to being able to play in the game."