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Spring Football 2021: tight ends preview

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Jake Ferguson is back for another season at the top of the depth chart, but there are plenty of young players that could benefit from spring practices.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If it seems like there have been more sports than ever this March it is because, well, there have been! What’s one more to add to the pile? The Wisconsin Badgers football team starts their spring practice on Tuesday, March 30 and we are going to start previewing each position group. UW will have 15 practices after having zero last year due to COVID-19.

Instead of the traditional position previews we’ve done in the past, these ones are going to be a little more focused on just a couple of players. We will feature one or two players who we think a full spring practice will really help and focus on one position battle that we think will be important.

Today we focus on the tight end room.

Players who will benefit from a full spring practice schedule

  • Walk-on tight end Gabe Lloyd is the only player that did not return for another season, after he decided to graduate transfer to North Dakota State. Everyone else at the position is back, and the vast majority of the players have yet to take part in spring practices. In 2020, the pandemic completely voided spring practice, leaving Jake Ferguson, Jack Eschenbach and Jaylan Franklin as the only tight ends on the roster that have ever participated in spring during their time in Madison. With spring practices so important in the development of younger players, there are multiple candidates that could benefit most from camp, but we’ll try to focus on just three of them.

First up is a tight end who actually has participated in a spring practice before, Jaylan Franklin. The sophomore tight end made a position change last off-season, after previously playing outside linebacker for his first two years on campus. A lengthy and quick 6-foot-4 athlete, Franklin is more of a pass catcher and he could really give the offense a lift if he can master the route tree and blocking schemes.

With Hayden Rucci playing so well as the more traditional in-line blocking tight end last season, that role seems fairly locked up enter next season. However, the Badgers could really use Franklin split out to create mismatch problems with linebackers and safeties. The staff has been very high on the former high school quarterback for some time, and he showed flashes last season on special teams with a big blocked punt in the bowl game.

Two other players that could really take advantage of the extra reps are Cole Dakovich and Cam Large. Both players joined the team as part of the 2020 class, and came out of high school with lots of hopes and fanfare. Large represented a huge win on the recruiting trail, as Wisconsin beat out Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State for his services. At 6-foot-3, 257 pounds he is build like a tank and could be a name to watch specifically at the in-line blocking centric role. Dakovich is a longer athlete that draws comparisons to Jake Ferguson in terms of size (6-foot-5 and roughly 250 pounds) and athletic ability stemming from his strong basketball skills. While he was an early commit for the Badgers in that 2020 class, he was receiving plenty of Big Ten interest at the time and his skillset make him a player that could help out not only as a blocker but also as a receiver with his frame and hand-eye coordination.

Key position battle

  • I think the top of the depth chart is relatively set. Jake Ferguson is the top dog and he should see the majority of snaps this season. Hayden Rucci, who has yet to take part in spring practices as well, played the very well as TE2 last season. While he did not record a pass reception, he spent his redshirt freshman campaign primarily as a blocker. He should continue to hold down that role, and I would anticipate that he grows as a receiver this off-season as well.

Behind Ferguson and Rucci is where things get more interesting. The Badgers love to deploy multiple tight end sets and rotate bodies at those spots, making the emergence of a third or potentially fourth tight end something to watch this off-season. Here is a quick look at some of the candidates:

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

Walk-on Jack Eschenbach hauled in two passes last season, and he has the size and speed to be a valuable asset. He probably has the inside track for that third spot, but the three players highlighted previously (Franklin, Large, Dakovich) are all intriguing players with potentially higher upside.

Clay Cundiff was a 2019 recruit that earned plenty of practice reps as a freshman in 2019 before enduring an injury, maybe he can earn the staffs trust and obtain more playing time.

Lastly, true freshman Jack Pugh is another wildcard to watch. He opted to enroll early this spring and he is a prototypical tight end that can do it all. It is very hard for a tight end to make an immediate impact as a freshman with how nuanced hand placement, blocking technique, and the route tree is for tight ends, but the former four-star prospect is a name to watch for moving forward.