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“Way-too-early” expectations for Wisconsin’s tight ends in 2019

How Mickey Turner’s position group could perform next season.

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NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Even without the presence of the departed Troy Fumagalli last season, Wisconsin’s tight ends contributed significantly to the offense in 2018.

That’s despite the position group—and the offense as a whole—missing redshirt senior Zander Neuville, whose final year as a Badger was cut short due to a reported ACL tear in his left knee in early October.

In often an anemic-looking passing game, the emergence of second-year player Jake Ferguson—who became one of the team leaders in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches—helped give a boost when called upon and a glimpse into an even more productive future.

With that, let’s look at what B5Q expects out of the tight ends, coached by former Badger Mickey Turner, for 2019.

Key contributors

  • Redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson: 36 receptions, 456 yards, four touchdowns
  • Redshirt junior Kyle Penniston: Three receptions, 18 yards, one touchdown

Expectation No. 1: Establish a starting in-line tight end to replace Zander Neuville

In my opinion, Neuville’s absence hurt Wisconsin’s offense in a huge manner. The former walk-on and converted defensive lineman was an extremely stout run-blocker while also having the ability—despite not having the most gaudy career receiving statistics—to catch the football.

In his absence, Wisconsin utilized at times some “jumbo” packages with two linemen—Logan Bruss and Jason Erdmann—with some varying degrees of success throughout the season. Both are now likely pegged for potential starting roles on the offensive line with the departures of guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel (graduation/exhausted eligibility) and right tackle David Edwards (declared for draft).

Rising redshirt junior Luke Benzschawel could likely be the leading candidate to be the starting tight end on the line heading into the 2019 season. He played in 10 games, starting four of them, but also fought off a right leg injury last year as well. He has the build at a listed 6’6 and 247 pounds, and another year in Ross Kolodziej’s strength and conditioning program should help him more to continue to build strength. He would have recorded his first career reception that would have resulted in a 20-yard touchdown during the second quarter of the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl win, but an illegal block penalty wiped out that opportunity.

It should also bear watching how Ferguson and rising redshirt senior Kyle Penniston continue to progress as well. We will get to Ferguson in just a bit, but for Penniston, he did not necessarily become a receiving threat or break out as some of us at B5Q thought prior to the season starting. He definitely has the ability to make a difference in both phases of the offense, and I wonder—from an outside-looking-in perspective—just how much Neuville’s injury affected Penniston’s role.

For the future, rising redshirt freshman Cormac Sampson appears to have a similar build (6’4, 255 pounds) as Benschawel and Neuville, and incoming freshman Hayden Rucci told B5Q that the coaching staff envisions him in this type of position.

Expectation No. 2: Continue to see the evolution of Jake Ferguson

During his redshirt freshman season, he became a key target on third down and ranked second on the team in receptions (36), receiving yards (456) and touchdown catches (four). Of his 36 catches, 27 of them went for a first down or touchdown.

That is a remarkable stat and one that showed he became a trusted target for Wisconsin’s quarterbacks—especially Alex Hornibrook early in the season out of 11 personnel.

Coming into spring and fall camps for 2019, my expectation is for him to improve further as a run blocker, and he should as he was aggressive and extremely capable as a second-year player in meaningful snaps. I still view him as an H-back type tight end based on the skillset he showed in 2018, but if he continues a promising trajectory and adds a couple pounds on to his frame, he could make an even greater impact in the run game.

If the passing attack gets back on its feet, whichever quarterback is under center for Wisconsin, Ferguson’s presence will be a key once again next season. The Badgers’ receiving targets need to create separation, and the tight end did so when called upon along with making some contested catches as well.

Barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, Ferguson is really the next in a long line of productive Wisconsin tight ends under Paul Chryst’s system that could play professionally at the next level. The upcoming season should show everyone how he can affect games on a greater degree, and it will be something to watch how opposing defenses will begin to prepare for him as a legit target.