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Wisconsin 2017 spring football preview: Troy Fumagalli returns to talented tight end corps

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Will he become the Badgers’ go-to weapon?

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81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The tight end position has historically been a staple of the Wisconsin Badgers’ offense, and UW will return in 2017 one of the nation’s best in redshirt senior Troy Fumagalli.

The former walk-on has the potential for a monster season and figures to get plenty of targets from quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Behind Fumagalli is redshirt sophomore Kyle Penniston, who showed flashes of brilliance in limited playing time a year ago. A former four-star recruit from California powerhouse Mater Dei, Penniston is ripe for a breakout year.

Will Fumagalli prove to be Wisconsin’s best offensive weapon? Will Penniston become a bigger part of the offense this fall? These questions and more will begin to be answered this spring, but Paul Chryst and co. will have plenty of confidence in this position group that should be one of Wisconsin’s biggest strengths this fall.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Tight Ends

Tight End 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Tight End 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Troy Fumagalli R-Sr 6'6 248 Aurora, Ill.
Kyle Penniston R-So 6'4 246 Orange, Calif.
Zander Neuville R-Jr 6'5 270 Waupaca, Wis.
Luke Benzschawel So 6'6 259 Grafton, Wis.
Gabe Lloyd So 6'4 240 Green Bay, Wis.
Jake Hescock So 6'7 252 Pittsfield, Mass.
Mitchell Herl R-So 6'4 254 Middleton, Wis.
Jake Ferguson Fr 6'5 209 Madison, Wis.

2016 Leaders

Troy Fumagalli: 47 receptions, 580 yards (12.3 yards per catch), two touchdowns

Kyle Penniston: 6 receptions, 102 yards (17.0 yards per catch), two touchdowns

Eric Steffes: 7 receptions, 34 yards (4.9 yards per catch), one touchdown

Key Departures

Eric Steffes (eligibility)

Key Additions

Jake Ferguson (fall enrollee)

Position Overview

After Fumagalli’s outstanding performance in the Cotton Bowl (six receptions, 83 yards, one touchdown) earned him the game’s offensive MVP award, expectations are rightfully very high for the Aurora, Ill., native. In fact, Fumagalli was given the highest grade (93.1) of any player in college football’s 41 bowl games by Pro Football Focus. With the graduation of Michigan’s Jake Butt and Michigan State’s Josiah Price, Fumagalli will likely be a preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection and on the Mackey Award watch list for the nation’s best tight end. Look for Fumagalli, along with wide receiver Jazz Peavy, to be Alex Hornibrook’s favorite targets this year.

The Badgers will need Fumagalli to be more involved in the red zone next season, as he finished with only two touchdowns in 2016. Fumagalli is next up in a long line of successful Wisconsin tight ends that includes NFL players Lance Kendricks, Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham and Owen Daniels. The talent is there (remember this catch from the Cotton Bowl?) and all signs point to Fumagalli having an All-American level season as the Badgers’ No. 1 tight end.

But what can we expect from the rest of the tight ends on Wisconsin’s roster? Badgers fans have been patiently waiting for Penniston to break out after coming to Madison ranked as the fifth-best tight end in the country by Rivals back in 2015. Penniston showed flashes last year, catching the first touchdown of his career against Georgia State and beating future NFL cornerback Desmond King for a 54-yard reception at Iowa. With Eric Steffes graduating, Penniston should see an uptick in snaps and be more involved in the passing attack. In his third year on campus, the Orange, Calif., native is a good candidate to be one of Wisconsin’s most improved players and should make an impact in plenty of games next year, even with limited snaps behind Fumagalli.

Zander Neuville, a redshirt junior and former defensive lineman, will likely head into the season third on the depth chart. Neuville, who was moved to tight end last fall by Chryst, was listed at 6’5, 270 pounds last season and will provide depth and blocking ability to the tight end corps.

Wisconsin also adds a talented freshman pass catcher in Madison Memorial’s Jake Ferguson. The grandson of athletic director Barry Alvarez, Ferguson is a candidate to redshirt in 2017 who looks quite impressive on tape. Ferguson won’t join the Badgers until the fall, but the coaching staff has not been afraid to play true freshman pass catchers, as we saw with Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor. If he really impresses in fall camp, they could find a way to get Ferguson involved in the offense sooner rather than later.

Overall, Chryst has to be optimistic about this group of tight ends with spring practices right around the corner. Led by one of the Big Ten’s best returning players in Fumagalli and a backup oozing with potential in Penniston, Wisconsin’s tight ends are one of the team’s greatest strengths heading into next season.