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Wisconsin’s tight ends will be the best in the Big Ten

Three players will help make the Badgers’ offense much more difficult to defend.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Fumagalli has a chance to leave his mark as one of the best tight ends in Wisconsin Badgers history.

That’s not hyperbole. The former walk-on emerged in 2016 by leading Wisconsin in receptions and becoming a legitimate force at the beginning and end of last season against LSU and Western Michigan. With similar production over the rest of his UW career, he could see his name held alongside predecessors like Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham, and Lance Kendricks.

It’s not just Fumagalli that defenses will have to keep tabs on, either. Two other tight ends—one a former walk-on who transitioned from the defensive line, the other a former early enrollee regarded as “Mr. Versatile” by tight ends coach Mickey Turner—should help the Badgers’ offense keep opposing defenses honest deep down the middle, in goal-line situations, and, yes, possibly even with some good ol’ Paul Chryst tight end screen passes.

“I really love their approach,” Turner said about his position group’s spring progression in early April. “There’s no one looking at the door for an easy way or ‘Man, if I can just get through these next couple of reps.’ Nah, they’re pretty hard on themselves. I’m trying to get them to understand that if they can keep improving how much it helps our offense. Instead of just trying to get through that rep for themselves, get through ti as a leader to the group, I think it’ll help our offense a lot.”

Wisconsin’s 2017 Tight Ends

Tight End 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Tight End 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Troy Fumagalli R-Sr 6'6 249 Aurora, Ill.
Kyle Penniston R-So 6'4 237 Orange, Calif.
Zander Neuville R-Jr 6'5 257 Waupaca, Wis.
Luke Benzschawel So 6'6 257 Grafton, Wis.
Gabe Lloyd So 6'4 249 Green Bay, Wis.
Mitchell Herl R-So 6'4 254 Middleton, Wis.
Jake Ferguson Fr 6'5 220 Madison, Wis.

“We speak highly of ourselves,” Fumagalli said back in April. “I think that Coach Turner— a lot of those guys, Zander [Neuville], Kyle [Penniston]—towards the end of the year, they would put a ton of tight ends so you know we expected to be a big part of the offense to take on that leadership role. Always be out there, be accountable, not messing up no penalties, stuff like that. Those are stuff that we’re working on and I’m going to take pride in.”

Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, Fumagalli has All-American potential written all over him—All-Big Ten at the absolute least. Leading the team in receptions (47) a year ago, the 6’6, 248-pound asset in UW’s offense knows there are still things to improve upon heading into his fifth season (one that he came back for instead of declaring for the NFL Draft).

“I think I need to do a couple of things,” Fumagalli said. “First of all is to improve—I could always get bigger, faster, stronger. I think that’s important.

“Then just understanding all the defenses a little better. That’s kind of my emphasis this spring. I take a few things that I can work on. Just to understand and seeing things right off the snap, making it easier for me to understand what’s going on.”

Fumagalli started the 2016 season picking apart the LSU defense to the tune of seven catches for 100 yards, then ended it with a six-reception, 83-yard performance and a fourth-quarter touchdown against Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. Against Ohio State, he caught seven passes again for 84 yards. In three other games, he reeled in at least four catches.

In April, Turner outlined the next steps in his stud tight end’s evolution.

“When I think about Troy, you saw in the Cotton Bowl is a consistency—it wasn’t that he didn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but he did it over and over again,” Turner said. “Obviously it wasn’t perfect, but he had a very impressive game. I think for him going forward is how you can do that every game? How can you be that guy against no matter who the d-end is, because we play some good d-ends—no matter who the coverage is, because he’ll be covered by some pretty good DBs, right? How can you be that no matter who’s against you?

“The great thing about Troy is when I challenge him with those news areas to get better at, he’s pretty hard on himself about attacking those things in improving those areas. It’s not a guy that I got to jump his butt or say, ‘Hey man, we talked about this.’ As soon as I give him a recipe for something that might make him more successful, he’ll jump right on it and take over.”

Neuville looks like the standard “Y” tight end with his hand in the ground, reminiscent of Jake Byrne and Brian Wozniak before him, though the potential for excelling at multiple tight end positions is there. The former defensive lineman, listed at a sturdy 6’5, 257 pounds, showed during the spring the ability to block efficiently and also make catches down the field.

“I’m a lot more comfortable now this spring,” Neuville said after the spring game. “I thought it was good for me to learn the playbook. Last year, I was more focused on memorizing what to do. This spring, Coach Turner and guys like Fumagalli, they helped me out a lot in truly understanding the offense and what’s been going on, so I’ve been learning a lot of different positions, and I just feel a lot more comfortable there now.”

“He’s really embracing tight end now. It’s not just something he’s trying to get through that play,” Turner said about Neuville’s progression in early April. “His knowledge has grown tremendously. I was telling somebody earlier, he has a 3.9 GPA. He takes tough courses in chemistry, organic chemistry—he comes in with some of these notes and they’re incredible—so he has the capacity to grow and grow and grow. And then you throw it into a body that’s pretty darn big and strong and powerful, and it’s a nice thing to have on your side.

“His confidence level has really grown a lot this spring. In the season, when he knew what he was doing, we’d see him flash and hit somebody pretty good or make a good play. If he didn’t, he played slow. For ‘Z,’ now he’s feeling comfortable with a lot of the offense, so he’s letting it go a lot more.”

Then there’s Penniston, a redshirt sophomore who Turner referred to as “Mr. Versatile.” Though he only caught six passes in 2016, two went for touchdowns.

Like Fumagalli, Turner admitted he trusts Penniston in just about anything UW does with its tight ends. He would like the Orange, Calif., native to put on a little more size and strength in the upcoming offseason, but the pieces to the full package are there.

“But in terms of throwing him on the field at any given position and doing any given thing, he retains the kind of nuances of football really well,” Turner said, “so that’s why you see him playing all the way away from the ball split out and all the way in the backfield.

“He’ll do it all.”

Behind those three likely contributors, redshirt freshman Luke Benzschawel stood out in spring practices with the reserves, making some solid receptions and plays. Though it may be another year until the younger brother of Beau may contribute, his emergence in the spring is a welcomed sign in case injuries hit the position group.

The future of Wisconsin’s tight ends looks bright, even with Fumagalli exhausting his eligibility after this season. Along with Neuville, Penniston, and Benzschawel, class of 2017 commit Jake Ferguson has great potential as well. A redshirt year would be beneficial for the Madison Memorial multi-sport standout; his frame is there at 6’5, but there’s room to pack on more size after he was listed at 220 pounds on National Signing Day.

“You know what, I know that as you go through this there are a lot that people can gather on their own, but something that a lot of people may not know about him without getting to experience him hand-to-hand is that he’s competitive,” Turner said on National Signing Day. “That’s what stuck out to me. He’s got the frame. He can make plays, he looks really good on film and plays basketball. He’s explosive, all of those you kind of need to have to be successful at the position. So, OK he’s got that, but the way he competes. He likes to play football.”