When it comes to the passing game, tight ends and fullbacks usually serve as security blankets for the quarterback, players bound to cause matchup problems and find holes in the middle of the defense. For Wisconsin's 2013 offense, though, these players could serve a much greater purpose.
Last season, tight end Jacob Pedersen was second in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns for the Badgers. During this spring's practices, Wisconsin's offense has featured several packages that use two or three tight ends lined up off-tackle or even spread out wide. A major reason for the tight ends' involvement in the passing game is, of course, Wisconsin's ability to run the ball, which takes the pressure off receivers. But the Badgers' wide receiving corps has also been largely unable to generate a second option alongside Jared Abbrederis, the unquestioned No. 1 receiving option.
Along with those reasons, the tight end group also features a number of players who are athletic enough to both block effectively and run routes.
"Athletically, we really have some good route runners and the ability to catch the ball with our hands really well," tight ends coach Jeff Genyk said. "So, I think [the tight ends] will be significantly involved in [the passing game]."
While the necessity to feature tight ends in the passing game might be viewed as a weakness, Genyk believes it will play to UW's benefit.
"The aspect of having kids that are multifaceted is they can do a good job of pass protection, run blocking and run great routes and make plays in the passing game," Genyk said. "It makes it very difficult for the defense. Especially when you get three tight ends on the field, you can really do a lot from a formational standpoint."
Alongside Pedersen at tight end this spring has been fifth-year senior Brian Wozniak and junior Sam Arneson. Both have taken a lot of reps and have proven themselves in the trenches along with the passing attack.
Both Wozniak and Arneson received playing time last season, with Wozniak racking up 94 receiving yards and Arneson scoring two touchdowns among his four receptions.
Pedersen, Wozniak and Arneson were expected to stand out this spring given their past experience, but fifth-year senior Brock DeCicco has been another player who has impressed coaches and teammates during practice this spring.
"I think a guy who has kind of flown under the radar is Brock DeCicco," Pedersen said. "He's got a lot of great skills. I think he can help us out a lot and he'll definitely be used in multiple-tight end sets to help us out."
DeCicco transferred to Wisconsin in 2010 from Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania native redshirted his first season at Pitt and in his second season had only two receptions for 19 yards, but both went for touchdowns. DeCicco played in all 14 games in 2012, but didn't catch a ball.
With the four upperclassmen -- Pedersen, Wozniak, Arneson and DeCicco, -- making a push for more playing time, Pedersen says the competition has brought out the best in all of the tight ends this spring.
"All together, they're pushing me, but at the same time I'm pushing them," Pedersen said. "They're trying to get better than me so that they can get more reps and they're pushing me to get better so I can keep my reps."
Though the lack of receiving options puts the spotlight on the tight ends' ability to contribute in the passing game, it can also be forgotten that the tight ends are still going to be blocking more than they are going to be running routes in the fall.
Genyk knows how important his group's ability to block will be in Wisconsin's run-heavy style and is pleased with the improvement he has seen in that area.
"I think [their blocking] is all improved," Genyk said. "I think their pad level has improved, good hand placement, they're finishing to the echo of the whistle. But, it's a sophisticated blocking scheme, whether it is a zone scheme or a gap scheme and they are able to adapt well to that."
One player who can also add another dimension to the passing game -- and has proven himself a viable option in the past -- is redshirt sophomore fullback Derek Watt.
Watt pitched in with 12 receptions for 150 yards in 2012 -- the fourth-most receiving yards on the team -- proving his ability as a pass catcher. Now, he expects to be even more involved in the passing game.
"Last year, I had I think 12 receptions, so I got in the pass game a little bit," Watt said. "I'm kind of looking for that role to evolve and kind of get incorporated in a little bit more. So getting in more routes -- not a whole lot -- but more than in the past, I think."
If Watt can continue to develop his skills in the passing attack, he knows he can become an even more valuable piece in Wisconsin's offense.
"It's definitely big to have the option that the fullback can catch the ball and be out in the flat, or be the checkdown or be the first option quick off of the snap," Watt said. "It's kind of a safety valve or a quick-hitter that is good for the quarterback to look for."