Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Tight Ends

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Tight Ends

Football

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Tight Ends

Main Story – Replacing Fumagalli

One thing is for certain for the University of Wisconsin – there is no player in the tight end room capable of filling the shoes of graduated tight end Troy Fumagalli.

Not only did Fumagalli catch 93 passes for 1,127 yards and six touchdowns the last two seasons, the All-American tight end was a massive target on third downs and one of the offense’s most effective blockers on the edge, part of the reason he was selected in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos in the most recent N.F.L. draft.

So for an offensive unit that is expected to hum at a high level with so many returning starters, UW and tight end coach Mickey Turner will have to be hopeful that junior Kyle Penniston and senior Zander Neuville are ready for the challenge.

Penniston, who has started 11 games and played in 26, has posted modest receiving numbers in each of his first two seasons. He enters the 2018 season with a combined 13 catches for 158 yards and three touchdowns, having caught more than two passes in a game only once. A split-out tight end in high school, Penniston’s blocking has improved over the years but has battled consistency.

From his time as a defensive end, Neuville’s aggressiveness has shown in the run blocking game, allowing UW to execute its coveted multiple tight end sets and its jumbo package. The senior – a former walk-on from Waupaca – spent most of the lead up to the 2017 season working on his ability as a pass catcher, a trait that flashed with his nine catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns last season.

Suffering a season-ending ACL knee injury in the regular-season finale, Neuville could make his season debut this Saturday against New Mexico.

“Zander is an interesting person/player to me,” head coach Paul Chryst told reporters this fall. “For Z, I think now he has got a true body of experience at tight end. That is hugely valuable. I think part of that experience is that I think he has gained a genuine confidence in what he can do.

“And I think he knows himself a little better as a tight end. And anytime you know yourself, I think you have a better chance to grow.”

UW was at its best last season with multiple blocking tight ends on the field. A healthy Neuville will certainly give UW one option, but the Badgers must find out if the fourth-year Penniston is able to survive with many more responsibilities being put on his plate.

Subplot – Jake Ferguson’s Progression

Following Neuville and Penniston, Wisconsin’s other five tight ends on its fall camp roster are either freshmen or sophomores. Of that group, redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson appears to be the biggest wild card. Wisconsin’s 2017 offensive scout player of the year, the former four-star recruit really took off last season after his high school senior season was plagued by injuries.

Having added significant weight to bump his 6-5 frame up to 239 pounds, Ferguson was a consistent pass catcher throughout the Badgers’ 15 spring practices and minimized his drops on catchable passes. He also benefited throughout last season by having Fumagalli take him under his wing and show off the finer points of run blocking, something Ferguson wasn’t asked to do a lot of at Madison Memorial.

UW appears to have a good healthy run blocker in Neuville and a solid pass catcher in Penniston but adding a raw talent in Ferguson who can assist in both categories is invaluable. That was evident against Western Kentucky, as Ferguson was the only tight end who was targeted by quarterback Alex Hornibrook, catching four passes (five targets) for 43 yards.

“There’s a big void to fill (without Fumagalli), but at the same time we’ve got a tight end room that’s really versatile,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got guys who can do a lot of things. I don’t think there’s anybody in the tight end room that’s not good at a certain thing. It’s really awesome to see that. We always compete but the guy next to you is your family. That tight end group is really close.”

Stat to Know

Thanks in large part to Fumagalli and the play of the tight ends, Wisconsin showcased a balanced offense last season with 28 rushing touchdowns (222.9 passing yards per game) and 25 passing touchdowns (192.1 ypg through the air). Western Kentucky – Wisconsin’s first opponent – ranked No.7 in passing (335.0 ypg) and No.129 in rushing (60.3 ypg) last season.

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