We are less than a month away from the Wisconsin Badgers starting up fall camp, and the 2018 edition of this team could continue to make its presence known not just in the Big Ten Conference but also in the College Football Playoff conversation.
As we count down the days until the pads and helmets are back on, this series is dedicated to the players fans should keep an eye on—regardless of if they’re already household names.
This next Badger should not be a surprise for a player to watch this fall camp and season based on his spring performance. With Troy Fumagalli now fighting to earn a roster spot with the Denver Broncos, the Wisconsin tight end room will likely turn to redshirt senior Zander Neuville and redshirt junior Kyle Penniston to fill the void—but there could be a third contributor barring injury or unforeseen circumstance.
Redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson showcased some impressive receiving skills during the 15 practices between March and April that warrant more reps in fall camp and a potential role during the season.
Another potential weapon in Wisconsin’s offensive arsenal? Ferguson very well could be.
Why Jake Ferguson is worth watching in 2018
Wisconsin will feature a dynamic offense this season with a Heisman finalist in running back Jonathan Taylor behind an All-American offensive line and an explosive aerial attack featuring quarterback Alex Hornibrook and a deep receiving corp of Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor, and Danny Davis. Though Fumagalli’s gone, the tight end position will be needed to provide key blocks in the rushing attack while providing receiving targets in the passing game.
Ferguson popped out to those in attendance from March until April. The Madison Memorial product (and *sigh* yes, Barry Alvarez’s grandson) reeled in some impressive catches during spring ball. To be honest, from what I can recall during those practices, I could count the number of drops he had on my left foot—and I have three toes on my left foot (seriously, no lie). He would have had my “unofficial Spring MVP” vote if not for the emergence of true freshman Aron Cruickshank.
One key factor for Ferguson, who has gained substantial weight since coming to UW, will be how he continues to progress in his blocking ability, something he said starts with the lower body.
“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.”
Blocking is obviously necessary for Wisconsin tight ends to see the field, but Ferguson told B5Q back in the spring that Fumagalli taught him to also focus on catching, not just honing in on picking up how to block.
“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,” Ferguson said. “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.”
Neuville’s return from injury should shore up any concerns at in-line tight end from a blocking and receiving perspective in particular formations, with Penniston’s pass-catching ability and experience in game situations allowing him to make an impact as well.
As offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said at the end of spring practices, Ferguson has earned reps in fall camp coming up in less than a month, but his opportunities during the 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.”
That thinking has apparently not changed. When speaking with ESPN Madison’s Tony Cartagena earlier this summer, Rudolph said Ferguson could be “tremendous,” noting his upside while echoing his thoughts from the spring.
“Eventually, when you’re being counted on, it’s not about surprising and making a play,” Rudolph said. “It’s, ‘Can I be consistent?’ and then still surprise and make that play.
“I’m pumped for him. You think about that class, you think about what a [Taylor] and a Danny Davis have already done. You think about him coming into it, it’s going to be pretty cool.”