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Wisconsin football preview 2016: Troy Fumagalli’s time at tight end is now

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The former walk-on has a chance at being an all-conference tight end.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Southern California vs Wisconsin Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Tight ends contributed to 45 of the Wisconsin Badgers’ 252 receptions (17.9 percent) in 2015, but there may have been more if not for a substantial arm injury to Austin Traylor in the 10-6 loss to Iowa. Traylor caught only 14 passes the entire year, but in that loss, Troy Fumagalli was thrust into a greater role.

Fumagalli, a former walk-on, was limited by injuries and had only four receptions to show for his performance through five games. With Traylor out, he rose to the occasion, catching 18 passes over the next four games — all wins — and finishing third on the team total (28).

Heading into 2016 with Traylor now competing for a roster spot with the Dallas Cowboys, Fumagalli will again have to step up to provide a reliable receiving target for either Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook — along with leading a young and unproven group of tight ends.

Leaders at position (2015 stats)

  • Troy Fumagalli: 28 receptions, 313 yards, one touchdown
  • Austin Traylor: 14 receptions, 210 yards, four touchdowns
  • Eric Steffes: three receptions, 50 yards

Returning players

  • Troy Fumagalli (RS Jr.)
  • Eric Steffes (RS Sr.)
  • Kyle Penniston (RS Fr.)
  • Mitchell Herl (RS Fr.)

Departing players

  • Austin Traylor (eligibility)
  • John Damrow (unknown)
  • David Edwards (moved to tackle)

Additions to position

  • Jake Hescock (Pittsfield, Mass.)
  • Luke Benzschawel (Grafton, Wis.)
  • Gabe Lloyd (Green Bay, Wis.)

X-Factor: Kyle Penniston

Penniston redshirted his first year in Madison after enrolling early at UW, but the highly-touted tight end out of Santa Ana, Calif. (Mater Dei) showed signs of producing during spring practices a few months ago. Entering his second season in Paul Chryst’s pro-style offense, the California native could become a potent receiving threat and a needed complement to Fumagalli and Eric Steffes. He’ll need to, as the returning tight ends caught 31 passes in 2015 — all by Fumagalli and Steffes.

Likely starter: Troy Fumagalli

Barring injury or setback, the Aurora, Ill., native will be entrusted to provide a viable and consistent option in the passing game to assist the new quarterback under center. When speaking with Fumagalli in late spring, he mentioned being a leader to this young and inexperienced group. Only he and Steffes have played in game-time action. He has the ability to be an all-conference tight end, and when speaking with him, that appears to be the goal.

Steffes is the lone senior of the group, and the 6’5, 262-pound tight end should be a force in the running game. He did catch three receptions last season as well, and will need to be depended upon to further expand his repertoire.

Penniston could play a huge factor in the offense, but behind him, all are redshirt or true freshmen. Jake Hescock could be an intriguing option down the road, while one of the more intriguing position “changes” seen on the 2016 roster was Luke Benzschawel. Beau’s younger brother appeared to be heading toward the defensive line, but the 6’6, 259-pound Grafton native will get his shot on the offensive side of the ball to start his UW career.