What the future holds: Tight end

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to see what the future holds for the Badgers.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to each player in terms of their class for 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

Tight end:

Returning: Kyle Penniston (JR), Zander Neuville (SR), Jake Ferguson (RS FR), Luke Benzschawel (RS SO)

Leaving: Troy Fumagalli

Arriving: Jaylan Franklin (3-star), Cormac Sampson (3-star)

Season grades

Biggest question: Who fills the production void left by Troy Fumagalli’s departure?

Wisconsin only loses one starter from the group that started in the Orange Bowl, but it’s a big loss. Troy Fumagalli left Madison as the most accomplished tight end in school history not named Travis Beckum, and you could make an argument he was the most well-rounded of any of the guys that have gone on to get drafted in the NFL over the last 10 or so years. Fumagalli finished his career with the second-most catches (135) and yards (1,627) by a tight end, so filling his shoes won’t be easy.

But Wisconsin does have options. Senior Zander Neuville had nine catches and a pair of touchdowns before going down with a knee injury in the season finale at Minnesota, while junior Kyle Penniston had seven catches and a score of his own. Both will see plenty of playing time in 2018 and should help lessen the blow of losing Fumagalli.

Still, the most intriguing name vying for a place in Wisconsin’s offense is Jake Ferguson. The brother of now-former Badgers’ safety Joe Ferguson and — tell me if you’ve heard this before — the grandson of athletic director Barry Alvarez, the redshirt freshman was named UW’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year for 2017. He was also among a group of true freshmen that traveled for the game against the Gophers, an act that has — in the past — been an indicator of how the coaching staff views a player and his potential of having a big impact the following year.

“From what I’ve seen, he makes some crazy catches,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said as the Badgers prepared for the Orange Bowl last month. “He’s really athletic when he’s catching the football. Sometimes people will be stiff, but he just looks really fluid.”

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Ferguson has a similar build to T.J. Watt, who began his career at tight end before injuries forced him to the defensive side of the ball. That obviously worked out quite well for him, as the outside linebacker was a first-round pick last April and just finished up his rookie year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But in the very limited snaps the media saw of him on offense, Watt had the potential to be special there, too. Can Ferguson do what Watt never got an opportunity to?

“He’s got a chance to be really good,” Fumagalli said of Ferguson. “He’s got all the intangibles. He’s big, he can move well. It’s just going to come down to how much he wants it and [how much he] works. That’s really [always] the story here [at Wisconsin].”

Other notes:

Injuries slowed the progress of redshirt sophomore Luke Benzschawel, but he showed glimpses of being a reliable pass catcher last spring and has the size to be a good run blocker.

It seems unlikely that the newcomers — Jaylan Franklin and Cormac Sampson — will have an impact in their first years on campus.

Predicted depth chart:

First team Second team
Zander Neuville (SR) Kyle Penniston (JR)
Jake Ferguson (RS FR) Luke Benzschawel (RS SO)

What the future holds:
Running back
Wide receiver