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Wisconsin football spring position preview: tight end

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Will the Badgers have better luck with the tight end room this year?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Returning players:

Coy Wanner, Junior, 6-foot-3, 236 pounds, No. 30

Jack Eschenbach, Sophomore, 6-foot-6, 224 pounds, No. 41

Hayden Rucci, Freshman (RS), 6’4”, 250 pounds, No. 43

Gabe Lloyd, Senior, 6-foot-4, 231 pounds, No. 46

Clay Cundiff, Freshman (RS), 6-foot-3, 251 pounds, No. 47

Jake Ferguson, Junior, 6-foot-5, 246 pounds, No. 84

Cormac Sampson, Sophomore (RS) 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, No. 85

Departing players:

Luke Benzschawel, medical retirement

Arriving players:

Cam Large, Freshman, 6-foot-5, 240 pounds

Cole Dakovich, Freshman, 6-foot-5, 220 pounds

Position overview

If there was one position group that really struggled to find itself in 2019, it was the tight end position. However, it was not because of mishaps on the field but instead a group plagued by the injury bug. Coming into last season guys like Gabe Lloyd, Zander Neuville and Luke Benzschawel expected to fill rolls for the Badgers in 2019, but were lost for the season due to injury.

To compound that, Hayden Rucci also suffered an arm injury, and Jake Ferguson dealt with a thumb injury early in the season. At times, Wisconsin ran with only two tight ends between a banged up Ferguson and Cormac Sampson, which was a lot to ask for each player.

Fast forward to 2020 and the tight end room looks to be in better shape. Coming into the season the Badgers should have Ferguson healthy which will help his production, and they have depth behind him to counter that. Sampson will be back in the mix as a run blocker for the Badgers at the tight end position after moving to back from offensive line to help take on the load for his old spot.

Additionally, the Badgers will have the likes of Gabe Lloyd and redshirt freshmen of Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff who will look to make an inroad towards the two deep.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who needs a big spring to crack the two-deep/who are you most excited to see in spring?

Outside of Jake Ferguson, the tight end position appears to be very much up for the taking. On top of that, there are a lot of different roles that the tight end plays in Joe Rudolph’s system. As a receiving threat, Ferguson will be the main target after being the second leading receiver a season ago. In pass blocking Sampson was great in his role, but the Badgers will look to develop other guys behind him as well. Really, the two deep is wide open and Mickey Turner will look to work in any player if they show strength in a certain role.

Overall, I think I am most excited to see the younger guys to get a feel for where they have progressed. Both Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff were highly touted prospects out of high school, but needed a year to get physically ready for the grueling grind that is being a Big Ten tight end. Now they have a chance to come out and focus on making an impact this spring.

True freshman Cam Large is also an interesting player to watch out for. Large has the size, and played in a system that developed him as a run blocker, which should help him work toward getting on the field. I am also interested in seeing where Jack Eschenbach is as he had an impressive camp last fall. At 6-foot-6 Eschenbach has the potential to be a big frame pass catcher, but he was a little small for the tight end role last season.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Who has the potential to be an all-conference performer (no players who have already made an all-conference team)?

There’s no doubt that Jake Ferguson has a real shot to be an all-conference player this season. With the departure of Quintez Cephus, Ferguson is the likely recipient of even more targets in 2020. In 2019, Ferguson battled through injury and fatigue and still ended up the Badgers second leading receiver. In 2020, Ferguson will be healed, and more depth will be behind him to give him a break when needed. Last year the coaching staff was extra careful with Ferguson early on because they couldn’t afford another injury, and in turn that impacted his play until the latter half of the season when he finally appeared to be healthy.

Where will this position group improve from last season?

It may sound like a broken record, but this group will improve simply by having bodies. Ferguson and Sampson had to be gassed in most games last seasons as the only two tight end options a lot of weeks. This year, both guys will be able to come off the field when they need. Ferguson took more snaps last year out of necessity, and in turn it emptied his tank. This year, guys should emerge to give the Badgers a true rotation at the tight end position which will improve the whole room front to back and hopefully give fresh legs to both the passing and run blocking game.

Where will this position group be worse than last season?

I think the development of this group could be a concern. What I mean is IF this group has not progressed to where the coaches want them to be, then we could have a similar situation to 2019. Last year Ferguson and Sampson took nearly all the snaps out of necessity. However, we could have a similar position if guys in this group are not ready to take the field.

I don’t expect that to be the case as Mickey Turner is an excellent position group coach, but there is no doubt that trust in guys who haven’t gotten a lot of on field experience will be a factor. Yes, the names and bodies are now there, but we’ll have to see it on the field to make sure some of these players are ready to be thrown into a game in front of 80,000 Badger fans.