He can be as good as he wants to be.
That’s how now former Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli described one of his potential replacements, redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson, last December. It was a nod toward his physical talents, which are off the charts, while also recognizing that there is still work to do.
“Somebody can be really good at anything, it’s just a matter of how much they want it,” Ferguson said in the spring when asked about Fumagalli’s assessment. “Working hard every day, just grinding with everybody. That’s what’s going to [determine] whether or not I’m good [enough].”
During spring practice, everyone saw exactly what Fumagalli was referring to. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Ferguson made highlight play after highlight play, including a one-handed grab for a touchdown on a ball that appeared destined to go flying by him.
It was the type of play the Madison native made on a routine basis last fall when he was named Wisconsin’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. The Badgers also took him to Minnesota for the final road game of the year despite knowing he wasn’t going to get on the field. That move, at least in the past, has been an indicator of how the coaching staff feels about a first-year players’ chance to have an impact the following season.
“I hope I can definitely get on the field and help the team out in anyway I can on offense [or] special teams,” Ferguson said of his goals. “Anywhere they need me. That’s the No. 1 goal. If I get put in a spot, I can help the team out as best that I can.”
Ferguson learned plenty from Fumagalli last fall, and spends time in the film room watching NFL star tight ends like the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. Both are big bodies that can move and hurt defenses in a multitude of ways. When their quarterbacks need them to make plays, they usually come through. That’s what Wisconsin has seen out of Ferguson in practice, but they also need to see it more from play-to-play.
“He’s going to attack the ball. He’s going to protect you. [There’s] not a whole lot of bad [that] happens when you go to him,” quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said. “The consistency [aspect] is huge. Jake would be the first one to tell you that he has to continue to work the details, so that [his route running] it’s consistently on time, consistently in rhythm. Once we get that, it will be pretty good.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph echoed Budmayr’s sentiments when it came to the consistency, but also made it clear he anticipates Ferguson getting opportunities when fall camp opens.
“His ability to contribute to the team will be based on his consistency,” Rudolph said. “For as good as he is, and for the plays he makes, I think he’d tell you just the same. He’s got a maturity that he still needs to reach. A maturity from the field from seeing things, just fighting through things at the time. Being that physical presence each play. But, as a young player, watching him spark and shine, [we’re] really, really excited.”
So, too, are the guys he goes against on a daily basis. Safety Scott Nelson, who battled with Ferguson throughout the spring, laid heavy praise on a guy that has yet to take a college snap.
“He’s so gifted athletically and with his hands. He’ll provide a lot for this team, I guarantee it,” Nelson said. “He’ll definitely be one of the great tight ends to ever come through here.”
Biggest question: How do you replace Troy Fumagalli?
Replacing one of the top tight ends to come through Wisconsin will not be an easy task, nor will it be a one-person job. It would be unfair to ask one player, whether it’s senior Zander Neuville, junior Kyle Penniston, redshirt sophomore Luke Benzschwel or Ferguson, to fill the void left by Fumagalli. His 135 catches and 1,627 yards were the second-most by a tight end in school history and he got drafted by the Denver Broncos in the fifth-round of April’s NFL Draft.
But there is definitely talent at the position and they should still be a significant part of the offense despite the plethora of weapons at coach Paul Chryst’s disposal.
Wisconsin missed Neuville following his knee injury in the regular-season finale against Minnesota. His run blocking played a big role in the success of running back Jonathan Taylor and the only way the Badgers could replace him was by using an offensive lineman as a tight end against Ohio State and Miami. He showed some receiving ability as well, but his blocking is where he’s most valuable.
Penniston is intriguing, especially now that the coaching staff believes he can line up at all three of the tight end spots and hold his own. Being able to play on all three downs, like Fumagalli, Sam Arneson, Jacob Pedersen and others did before him, means less predictably for an offense.
Benzschawel lost about 10 pounds from last season, which should help in the pass game. At 6-foot-6, he provides another imposing presence when the Badgers want to run the ball down an opponents’ throat.
And then there’s Ferguson, who as we illustrated earlier, likely has the highest upside of anybody in the group. If it all comes together for him this fall, watch out.
The top of the depth chart in August could be very different by the time October rolls around. I expect Penniston and Neuville to be the first-team tight ends at the start of the season, but Ferguson just has too much talent and play-making ability to keep him off the field. That much was evident in spring. The only thing holding him back, as evidenced above, is doing it on a down-to-down basis. Once that happens, Ferguson will be on track, at least from where I stand, to becoming an All-Big Ten tight end before his career is done.
What they said:
“He gives you a presence of a play-maker. I don’t think that’s been underestimated. He made plays last year, but I think there’s a chance for that to be more in the spotlight.”
Rudolph on Neuville being more than a blocker
First-team: Zander Neuville (SR), Kyle Penniston (JR)
Second-team: Jake Ferguson (RS FR), Luke Benzschawel (RS SO)
“The Camp” previews the TEs