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Wisconsin football 2020 review/2021 preview: tight ends

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Next up in our off-season series that looks back at 2020 and forward to 2021, we feature the tight ends.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

2020 starters

  • Jake Ferguson (RS junior)
  • Hayden Rucci (RS freshman)
Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

2020 statistics

  • Jake Ferguson led the Badgers in receptions (30), receiving yards (305) and receiving touchdowns (four) while playing in all seven games.
  • Jack Eschenbach played in all seven games and hauled in two receptions for 27 yards in seven games.
  • Hayden Rucci started one game as the in-line tight end, but did not record a reception this season while blocking in all seven games.
  • Jaylan Franklin played in five games and blocked a punt in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl on special teams.

2020 season review

Jake Ferguson came in to the 2020 season considered one of the best tight ends in the Big Ten. The junior from Madison did not disappoint, as he led the team in most receiving categories while also improving as a run blocker.

Ferguson played phenomenally the first four games of the season as he averaged over five receptions, 58 yards, and caught all four of his season-high four touchdowns. After injuries and COVID-19 issues decimated the wide receiver room though, defenses completely blanketed Ferguson in an attempt to take him out of the passing game the final three games, and it seemed to work.

Wisconsin v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Ferguson averaged a little over two receptions 23 yards per game in the final three contests, and did not record a touchdown reception. Part of that decline in production was due to inaccuracies from Graham Mertz, but defenses definitely keyed on the Badgers primary receiving threat with a lack of other weapons available around him.

Also seeing time at tight end in 2020 was Hayden Rucci. The redshirt freshman from Pennsylvania did not play during 2019 due to an arm injury, but he was a crucial lead blocker for the Badgers last season from his in-line tight end position.

Jack Eschenbach also saw action during the fall, and caught two passes in limited snaps. More of a pass catching threat, he looked good after adding some much needed weight last offseason after coming to campus as a walk-on wide receiver from Benet Academy in Illinois (Frank Kaminsky says hi) back in 2018.

2021 season preview

The announced return of Jake Ferguson (aka Barry’s Grandson) was absolutely huge news for the Wisconsin offense. Many projected Ferguson to move on to the NFL, but his decision to come back for his fifth season gives the Badgers their top returning offensive threat.

Expect Ferguson to have a big season in 2021 with Kendric Pryor back (and hopefully healthy), and another year of development for Graham Mertz and some of the younger wide receivers.

Hayden Rucci should continue to maintain his role as a primary blocking tight end, but he could see additionally opportunities in the passing game after demonstrating a solid grasp of blocking responsibilities last season, despite no traditional spring practice last year for development. Rucci is a talented tight end prospect that could add another dimension to Mickey Turner’s group if he becomes a reliable receiver as well. Clay Cundiff did not earn playing time this past year, but he falls in a similar category to Rucci as a blocking tight end that could be in the mix for a larger role in 2021.

Jaylan Franklin and Jack Eschenbach are still developing as blockers and are fairly new to the position, but have high upside as athletes that could potentially be threats in the passing game as well with a strong off-season. For an offense desperately in need of weapons, Franklin in particular could be a player to watch once he learns the route tree at h-back.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Pinstripe Bowl - Miami v Wisconsin Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Beyond that core group, freshmen tight ends Cole Dakovich and Cam Large would/should really benefit from a more “normal” spring practice schedule as they continue to learn the position. Tight end is such a developmental position at Wisconsin because of the rigorous requirements of the role as a blocker and receiver. This off-season should give both players a better opportunity to contribute next fall.

Incoming freshman Jack Pugh is another player to keep an eye on this spring with him coming in as a mid-year enrollee. Pugh will have a lot of learning to do, but he is a 4-star recruit that has a bright future.

Wisconsin uses as many as three or four tight ends in a given year, leaving plenty of room for some of the younger players to jump up and earn playing time with a big spring or summer.