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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Way-too-early look at tight ends

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Does the return of Paul Chryst mean the return of the tight end middle screen to the playbook? Austin Traylor and Troy Fumagalli sure hope so!

Troy Fumagalli will take on an expanded role in the Badgers passing game in 2015.
Troy Fumagalli will take on an expanded role in the Badgers passing game in 2015.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin's football season may have officially ended with a 34-31 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn, but we around here know that college football season never really ends. There was National Signing Day, and soon spring practice, and then the spring game, and then summer practice, and then BOOM! it's already #AlabamaHateWeek. So, while it is probably way too early to look ahead to 2015, when you really think about it time is a flat circle and it is never too early to look ahead to 2015.

The tight ends for Wisconsin this year were a deep, talented and under-utilized group. Three different tight ends caught passes for the Badgers this year, with senior Sam Arneson leading the way. Behind junior wide receiver Alex Erickson, Arneson was the second leading receiver on the team and also the team leader in receiving touchdowns. Backup Troy Fumagalli showed much promise, and is the presumed starter heading into 2015.

None other than Melvin Gordon championed Fumagalli's talents to the media this year, saying:

"I'm really a fan of Fumagalli," Gordon said. "I really think we should find a way to get him out there on the field because I really feel he could change our offense."

I've always said, when the (possibly) greatest running back in your school's history says to get someone more involved, you get that someone more involved. Let's take a look at what the Badgers are losing from the tight end position -- and also what we can look forward to seeing from the group in 2015.

Early 2015 UW previews: Quarterbacks Running backs Wide receivers

Leaders at position (2014 stats)

Sam Arneson: 29 receptions, 387 yards, 13.3 average, 4 touchdowns

Troy Fumagalli: 14 receptions, 187 yards, 13.4 average, 0 touchdowns

Austin Traylor: 3 catches, 24 yards, 8.0 average, 0 touchdowns

Returning players to position

Troy Fumagalli (RS SO), Austin Traylor (RS SR), T.J. Watt (RS SO), Eric Steffes (RS JR), Sam Eckert (SO), John Damrow (SO)

Departing players from position

Arneson, Austin Maly

Additions to position

Kyle Penniston (Mater Dei, Santa Ana, Calif. -- early enrollee), David Edwards (Comm District 99-North, Downers Grove, Ill.)

X-Factors: Kyle Penniston

I know around these parts Penniston has kind of taken on mythical status due to his unrelenting love of the University of Wisconsin and Madison.

I mean, he's literally counting down the days until he gets to come to Madison. He is also tireless in his recruiting of other kids interested in playing at UW, but there is an on the field reason to be excited about Penniston too. He's really quite good.

At 6-5, 232 pounds, Penniston has a B1G-ready body yesterday. Add that to the fact that he is enrolling early and will get an entire offseason of weight training, and there is a possibility that Penniston is one of the freakiest athletes on the team come training camp.

Penniston's Hudl video shows some promising highlights, that could allow Penniston to see the field as a freshman.

First, some major positives: he is a willing blocker, excellent after the catch and is sure-handed. The one area that I think all the extra practice will help with is his route running ability. In high school, he used his raw athleticism and talent to get open, but that won't work at the next level. He needs to come out of his breaks sharper and quicker.

It will be interesting to see what Chryst's policy is on playing true freshmen in Madison, but Pitt's leading rusher the last two years, James Conner, started as a true freshman, so there is precedent here. Wisconsin's offense often uses multiple tight end sets, and if Penniston is able to pick up the offense quickly he could see the field a lot next fall.

"Way-too-early" prediction for starters: Troy Fumagalli/Austin Traylor

Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham, Lance Kendricks and Jacob Pedersen. From 2005-2011 when Paul Chryst was the offensive coordinator of the Badgers (and from 2008-2011 when Joe Rudolph was the tight ends coach), those five names were the top tight ends on Wisconsin's roster. You may recognize most of them from watching games on Sunday.

Paul Chryst cares about the tight end position. He uses it well and features it on game days. 2005 was the only year, under Chryst, that the tight ends did not outperform this year's group -- and the team had a legit threat catching the ball out of the backfield that year in Brian Calhoun.

In 2006, Beckum was UW's leading receiver; in 2007, Beckum led the team again and Graham was second. Graham was the leading receiver and Beckum was third (in only six games played) during the 2008 season, while a year later, Graham was the second leading receiver and leading scorer. In 2010, Kendricks was the leading receiver -- and in 2011, Pedersen was third behind Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis.

This lengthy, statistical history lesson is just to solidify the fact that the tight ends are primed for a big year. There is veteran leadership and blocking ability with Traylor, there is rising talent in Fumagalli and there is a mix of all of it (maybe not the veteran part, but you can't argue with his leadership qualities) with Penniston.

A tight end will lead the 2015 team in receiving touchdowns, and I won't hear arguments to the contrary, and there will be two tight ends amongst the Badgers' top three pass catchers. I don't know what order, because Erickson will still get a fair amount of looks.