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Wisconsin football: Badgers' tight ends are talented, if inexperienced

Wisconsin's development of its young tight ends will play a pivotal role in an offense that could look different with a new quarterback in 2016.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin's tight end grouping was hindered by injuries in the 2015 campaign, but some young and talented returning players make this an exciting position group that is poised for a productive 2016 season.

Traditionally, Wisconsin has been a hotbed for big, talented tight ends that fit perfectly in the pro-style, run-oriented offense the Badgers typically run. In 2016, two tight ends in particular figure to be a vital part of Paul Chryst's offense, which also begins the year with extreme uncertainty at the wide receiver position.

Last season, Austin Traylor was expected to be Wisconsin's No. 1 tight end. He was a solid blocking tight end and was poised for a bigger role in the passing game. Unfortunately, five games into the season Traylor was lost for five weeks to a right-arm injury. The redshirt senior returned in a big way for the Holiday Bowl, where he had his best game of the season (three receptions, 47 yards, one touchdown) in Wisconsin's win over USC.

Redshirt sophomore Troy Fumagalli impressed as the first-string tight end in Traylor's absence, tallying over 45 yards in four straight games in October. He figures to be the starter heading into the fall and should be an important weapon for which ever first-year starting quarterback wins the job. Look for Fumagalli to be more of a factor in the red zone this season as well; he only found the end zone once last year, but that number should improve significantly with more balls coming his way. Kyle Penniston, a highly touted recruit two years ago, should finally get the opportunity to see the field after redshirting a year ago. The Mater Dei, Calif., product will likely lineup opposite Fumagalli in two-tight end sets and could emerge as a threat in the passing game as he gets more comfortable at the college level.

Leaders at position (2015 stats)

Troy Fumagalli: 28 receptions, 313 yards, 1 TD
Austin Traylor: 14 receptions, 210 yards, 4 TD
Eric Steffes: 3 receptions, 50 yards, 0 TD

Returning players

Troy Fumagalli (RS JR)
Kyle Penniston (RS FR)
Eric Steffes (RS SR)
John Damrow (RS SO)
Mitchell Herl (RS FR)
David Edwards (RS FR)

Departing players

Austin Traylor

Additions to the position

Jake Hescock (Salisbury, Conn.)

X-factor: Kyle Penniston

Wisconsin fans may finally get to see the former four-star Penniston in action this season. If the redshirt freshman can make an impact in the passing game, he and Fumagalli will combine to make one of the more productive tight end corps in the Big Ten. The talent is there, and it will be exciting to see what Penniston can do with increased playing time and a quarterback who will likely be looking to his tight ends a substantial amount.

"Way too early" prediction for starter: Troy Fumagalli

I touched on this a little bit above, but Fumagalli (along with Robert Wheelwright) are the two most likely candidates to replace the production that is being lost with the graduation of wide receiver Alex Erickson. Fully expect Fumagalli to be the No. 1 tight end in August and be a constant target for either Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook. The Naperville, Ill., product has a big frame at 6'6, 247 pounds, and should be a favorite target for either quarterback in the red zone. It's a big year for Fumagalli and expectations are high, but if he stays healthy he is a great candidate to earn all-Big Ten honors in some capacity.