A former walk-on turned team captain, Big Ten Kwalick–Clark Tight End of the Year, and John Mackey Award finalist, Troy Fumagalli left a lasting impression on the Wisconsin Badgers as the next in a long line of standout tight ends.
Now Fumagalli heads to the AFC West after being selected in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. Wisconsin won’t necessarily have to rebuild at one of the notable position groups in Paul Chryst’s offense, however. Three Badgers—another former walk-on, a redshirt junior with four-star recruiting pedigree, and a redshirt freshman with cardinal-and-white lineage—will be called upon to answer the challenge in replacing Fumagalli’s production.
Wisconsin’s 2018 Tight Ends
|Zander Neuville||R-SR||6'5||251||Waupaca, Wis.|
|Kyle Penniston||R-JR||6'4||236||Orange, Calif. (Mater Dei)|
|Jake Ferguson||R-FR||6'5||240||Madison, Wis. (Memorial)|
|Luke Benzschawel||R-SO||6'6||250||Grafton, Wis.|
|Gabe Lloyd||R-SO||6'4||237||Green Bay, Wis. (Northeast Wisconsin Lutheran)|
|Coy Wanner||R-FR||6'3||240||Green Bay, Wis. (Preble)|
|Cormac Sampson||FR||6'5||240||Eau Claire, Wis. (Memorial)|
|Jack Eschenbach||FR||6'6||210||Downers Grove, Ill. (Benet Academy)|
Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston—both named to the John Mackey Award watch list on Friday—have game-time experience and will likely be seen often when Wisconsin has the ball.
Neuville, a former walk-on and defensive lineman, has played in 39 career games (12 starts) and is Wisconsin’s standard in-line “Y” tight end. Last season, he was instrumental in the rushing attack while also catching nine passes for 81 yards with two touchdowns.
His season ended prematurely with a right leg injury in the regular-season finale at Minnesota, but Neuville has worked his way back despite missing spring practices.
Wisconsin tight ends coach Mickey Turner noted in April that Neuville was ahead of schedule but based on his experience, they wanted to be smart with him heading into the summer.
“I anticipate him going into summer full speed, but he’s not a guy I’m going to keep after and do wind sprints with,” Turner said then with a laugh.
As you can see, Neuville appears #campready after power cleaning 315 pounds.
A former four-star prep standout, Penniston caught only seven passes for 56 yards last season with Fumagalli receiving the bulk of receptions for the position group. In 26 career games, Penniston has caught 13 passes for 158 yards and three touchdowns.
While Neuville was out in the spring, Penniston told B5Q in April that he was exposed to more run blocking in what he called more “traditional” I-formation looks.
“I’m a big believer that when the tight end is doing well, the offense really does well,” Penniston said when asked about his goals he is setting. “Last year, we saw a lot of Troy’s big third-down catches, but he also had a lot of really good blocks on first and second down that sprung ‘JT’ or Chris [James] for a big run, so [I want to be] just kind of proficient in both the running and the passing game.”
Penniston will be entering his fourth year in the program, and with Fumagalli off to the NFL, he has the opportunity to step in as the lead H-Back type of tight end. Among his goals heading into summer conditioning and then fall camp, he wants to “keep developing, keep getting bigger, become more of a leader.”
“The tight ends are going to be relied upon next year a lot,” he added.
When asked during the spring what he wants to see out of Penniston, Turner mentioned that he wants the California native “to find that level of maturity.”
“Now he’s one of the oldest guys—shoot he was a mid-year [enrollee] too—so he’s going into his fourth year, and he already had a spring before that, there’s no excuse for him to not be [in] kind of a senior mindset. Even though he’s got two years left, which is good for us, he should have kind of a senior mindset that, ‘There’s nothing that I’m going to be asked to do that I shouldn’t be able to execute and feel confident about it.’ He’s getting there, but again, baby steps, right?”
Emerging this spring, Jake Ferguson impressed in the practices open to the media. The Madison Memorial product reeled in many receptions from Wisconsin quarterbacks, showing his pass-catching ability. He is working on improving his blocking skills but is also showing a natural ability to be a weapon in the passing game.
“Coming here now, I really focused on my blocking, but also it’s really important to focus on your catching, and ‘Fum’ really taught me that,” Ferguson said in April. “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.”
According to offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph, how Ferguson contributes “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 in April. “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, [he’s] 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?’”
Redshirt sophomore Luke Benzschawel also received additional reps in the spring while Neuville was out. At 6’6, 250 pounds, he could be the next in line in years to come.
“Luke’s growing up a little bit,” Turner said. “He’s still gotta get bigger and stronger physically, but I can tell some changes, just even in spring ball. At the beginning of spring, I saw a little bit of a different demeanor, and from that first day to now, I’m seeing even a better demeanor.
“Again, he’s a consistency guy that he knows that’s got to be his role. He can’t have any mental errors, he can’t know not what to do. He can’t have any missteps in technique. He can’t have one play where he’s like too high and he gets beat. He got beat by [outside linebacker Andrew] Van Ginkel today. Happens to a lot of guys, but he was mad after it and he went and did some extra stuff. That’s what I want to see out of him, that it matters so much that he’s not going to let it happen again.”
Gabe Lloyd, a walk-on, saw time on special teams in eight games last season.
Coy Wanner redshirted, and as noted in our fullback preview, he also received some time in the backfield.
Among the new faces in the room: true freshmen Cormac Sampson and walk-on Jack Eschenbach. Sampson claimed first-team all-state honors as a tight end from the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association as a senior, catching 10 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown. Eschenbach recorded 44 receptions for 711 yards and five touchdowns as a senior.
Though he was listed as a tight end during the early signing period, true freshman Jaylan Franklin announced himself as an outside linebacker in an Instagram post earlier this summer.