Last season, Wisconsin Badgers safety Joe Ferguson looked across the line of scrimmage to see a familiar face during scout-team work: his younger brother, tight end Jake Ferguson.
The elder Ferguson brother conceded Jake, who worked on the scout team while redshirting during his first year at UW, “was a lot better” than he thought he was going to be. This was especially apparent when Joe, who played in all 14 games with five starts last season, faced his younger sibling during this portion of practice.
The scout-team sessions allowed players to work more on technique and “seeing the routes,” as Joe said. A period of practice where the action was maybe not as “cutthroat” as others.
Not so much against Jake.
“Every time I was guarding Jake, and I’m sure everybody else would say this as well, you really had to lock in because you knew he was going to give you his best, and his best is pretty good,” Joe said.”
That even included Jake getting the upper hand.
“I’ll admit it, he caught a couple touchdowns on me,” Joe said. “Everyone would yell it’s ‘Ferg-on-Ferg’ crime, and everyone would laugh. He got me a couple times, but not too many times.”
Jake did not play in a game last season, but his impact was felt, earning the team’s offensive scout-team player of the year honor.
This spring, Ferguson constantly showed the ability make key receptions, including an impressive one-handed grab against safety Eric Burrell the last Tuesday of spring practice. He has put himself into position to contribute in the fall.
Ferguson was a standout prep receiver at James Madison Memorial just about 15 minutes away from Camp Randall Stadium, earning an invitation to The Opening Finals back in summer 2017. Catching the football has felt “pretty natural” to him.
“Coming here now,” Ferguson said, “I really focused on my blocking but also it’s really important to focus on your catching, and ‘Fum’ [former Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli] really taught me that. That not only do you have to focus on something you need to get better [at], but you want to focus on stuff that you’re still good at to make it better. I really took that in and I try to catch every ball every practice, and sometimes it doesn’t go my way, but I really just try to bring it down whenever I can.”
In spring camp, Ferguson flashed that attribute while reeling in passes from his quarterbacks. But at Wisconsin, all tight ends have to block to see time on the field.
According to Ferguson, that starts with his feet.
“You hear in the tight end room a lot, ‘You’re not blocking with your hands, you’re blocking with your feet,’” Ferguson said. “I think that’s really important because if you take a wrong first step and you’re in bad position, it’s not going to go your way.
“I think over the past year, I’ve really had to focus on that, not only my feet, but getting my body bigger and just working on my size. That’s come a long way, so now it’s just kind of focusing in and just honing in on the craft and getting better at everything.”
Ferguson has added about 40 pounds to his frame since coming to UW. He told B5Q he started out at 205 pounds as a first-year freshman but has bumped up to 245.
So how many calories does he consume a day?
“I don’t even know,” Ferguson said. “I just eat until I can’t eat anymore. Usually four or five meals a day.”
Tight ends coach Mickey Turner noted that Ferguson is learning to play with his new weight and “has a grin on his face most days.” The former Badger turned position coach also pointed out that Ferguson only played receiver and middle linebacker in high school, so learning the typical stance of a tight end is newer to him.
“I think he’s starting to appreciate how certain plays play off of each other,” Turner said on Tuesday. “So, ‘Man, if I block this guy hard, when I go to release him, it’s going to be a little bit easier because he’s going to be top-heavy instead of just trying to run down the field every time.’ He’s got a great competitiveness, I’m not worried about that. He’ll fight to the finish, he’s not scared to put his face in there, so he kind of checks all those boxes that we have to here at Wisconsin.”
“Now, he’s starting to have some fun with the whole playbook instead of just the one-handed catches. Then if he can keep doing that, it brings a little bit of life to the huddle, too, with those young guys. He’s the one kind of cracking jokes, but you know he’s serious at the same time. Then there’s also a fine line that not all guys can kind of have. Some guys that I played with were a little [pauses and laughs] on the edge, and Jake plays with that.”
Wisconsin’s tight ends have been a staple of the offense in Paul Chryst’s system. Gone is the All-American Fumagalli, who led the team in receptions last season and consistently put himself in the right positions on the field.
Redshirt junior Kyle Penniston and redshirt senior Zander Neuville also have playing experience at the position (26 and 39 games, respectively). Turner anticipates the latter will go into summer “full speed” after recovering from a right leg injury suffered in the regular-season finale against Minnesota.
How Ferguson could be used this upcoming season remains to be seen. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph mentioned earlier this month that the redshirt freshman has earned reps during the fall based off of his noticeable playmaking ability. What he contributes to the offense this season “will be based on his consistency.”
“For as good as he is and for the plays that he makes, I think he’d tell you just the same he’s got a maturity that he still has to reach,” Rudolph said. “A maturity from the field, from seeing things, just fighting through things at the time, being that physical presence each play, but as a young player watching him spark and shine and do stuff, really really exciting.
“Again, he’s gotten such great reps this spring that he’s going to have a great opportunity to say, ‘OK, here’s who I am as spring ends. Who do I want to be when I walk in the door in fall camp?’ I think he’ll take a great step there. I think it’s a great chance for him to fill all those pressures of being in there and go, ‘OK, now I’m going to have to get this done. What do I need to do in this period of time,’ so I think it’s been a great spring for him.”