MADISON — The Wisconsin Badgers a rich history of tight ends – Owen Daniels, Lance Kendricks, Garrett Graham, and Travis Beckum to name a few.
Now the unit is led by Troy Fumagalli, who has proven to be among the best in college football; not just at his position, but across the board.
This season, Fumagalli is still very much at the helm. He showed that in game one against Utah State that saw him haul in five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He looked dominant.
Fumagalli is joined on the field with another, sometimes two other, tight ends at the same time due to a plethora of talent at the position.
Junior Zander Neuville and sophomore Kyle Penniston are also impact players.
“I think as a group, we’re athletic overall. We’re definitely big, taller guys so I think we can all run too,” Neuville said. “If we are going up against safeties we can win the jump ball but if we’re going against linebackers we can maybe body them out or beat him with our speed. So we can beat them both ways.”
This is true for every tight end in the group. All three of them are 6’4″ or taller and over 240 pounds. They’ll reach over most defensive backs and be stronger than most linebackers.
Getting this good at a position does not just happen, according to tight ends coach Mickey Turner, it takes one step at a time.
“They have to get great at one thing at a time and that’s what I tell the young guys, don’t try to get it all right away, just get good at what you’re working on,” Turner said. “But the older guys, the more they stack on their plays the more they’re going to get used come Saturday.”
Last year, Penniston emerged as a red zone threat in the passing game, totaling 102 receiving yards and two receptions for touchdowns on a total of just six receptions in 2016.
Neuville, on the other hand, was limited to run blocking as he was transitioning from a position change of defense to offense. He did not record a reception.
“I’d say the biggest thing for me is just confidence with catching the ball,” Neuville said, clearly embracing Turner’s coaching philosophy. “Last year my main thing was run-blocking and so this spring and a lot during fall camp when I was healthy, I just gained a lot more confidence in pass catching and running the routes.”
If Neuville didn’t have confidence before game one against Utah State, he sure does now. He finally recorded his first reception. A 28-yard touchdown catch at that.
“I think Z[ander] is really important. He has earned the right to play and he gives us great energy and it’s been fun to see him over the past year and these last couple of weeks maybe, learning the position,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think he saw what he means to the team. There were a lot of guys excited to see him score and you see that when other teammates, when they know another guy works and appreciate what he does, you get a moment like that.”
But it is not just about catching passes and keeping the defense off-balance. Run blocking is just as important for tight ends as is catching a touchdown pass.
Luckily every one of the three tight ends are more than capable.
“It’s huge,” starting right guard Beau Benzschawel said of the tight ends blocking impact. “It really helps us out as an offensive line knowing that our guys are always going to be juiced up and ready to go. It really helps our offense a ton.”
With tight ends being responsible for so much, when it comes to the offense, being on the same page can become difficult. Speaking the same language is crucial according to Turner.
“Definitely need to be on the same page. The great thing is that we work with the offensive line all of the time, we use the same terminology and speak the same language out there,” Turner said.
With Neuville clearly emerging as an offense play-maker along with Penniston and Fumagalli, the Badgers coaching staff has began to implement more three-tight end sets.
Adding more to the arsenal offensively, the tight end group has given a major advantage to the team both in the run game and the passing game. Frankly, it is a matchup nightmare, with opposing defense left deciding if they should concede the pass or the run.
“There’s a number of things, if you’re just talking football, that you got a chance to make a longer edge so there’s more gaps to cancel,” Chryst said. “So if they substitute different body types then you could maybe take advantage of that. Each team, how they choose to defend it, can open up something that you think might be an advantage”
One of the most important things for a defense, from the defensive line to the defensive backs, is physical balance. Mental balance is also key. Defenses that are comfortable are ones that can easily read offenses.
Three-tight end sets tip that mental balance.
“The defense has to choose. Do they want to play heavy in the box or do they want to spread out. That’s the key part,” Fumagalli said.
“When we come out in [three tight end sets] and they bring in heavy personal, we can spread out too. Just keeping them off-balance and being able to play different roles is big in just keeping them off.”
The Badgers’ tight ends are emerging as the key unit that may be able to push a Wisconsin program normally known for its elite defense to become feared on the offensive side as well.