Although the Badgers have two Heisman winners at running back and have produced two Outland Trophy winners in the last five years at offensive line, it's hard to argue with the immense amount of tight end talent that always seems to go from Wisconsin right to the NFL with players like Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks.
The Badgers don't have that star yet, but it appears redshirt junior Jacob Pedersen is knocking at the door. Playing in all 13 games last season with four starts, Pedersen played well in the shadow of Kendricks, catching eight passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers don't seem like much but compare them to the six catches for 141 yards in the eight games Kendricks played in his sophomore year, Pedersen is already ahead of the pace.
But if Pedersen is going to step into the starting tight end role, who is going to step up into the back-up tight end role? The Badgers have plenty of options from upperclassmen to first year players to insert into the lineup as a solid compliment in the run and passing game. To find the answer, Badgernation.com talked to tight end coach Joe Rudolph about what he's seen from the other players in his group and how prepared they are for tonight's season opener against UNLV.
BN: Over the course of fall camp, how have the tight ends really grown and improved? Have you been pleased with the strides experienced guys like Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen made throughout camp?
Rudolph: I am. I see those guys working and they have definitely stepped up and taken some positive steps from last season. You think about where they were in the spring and where they are now, I feel confident in what they are doing. There are still some things they need to round out, but they have given us some good things.
BN: Byrne has never really been known as a pass catcher but him and Russell Wilson have had some good connections on the field. Has Byrne put a lot of effort into his pass catching game over the summer because it looks like he's catching it with as much confidence as he ever has?
Rudolph: You know what, I think he took ownership if being great in the running game and challenged himself to be the same game in the pass game. I think he has a lot of ability there. I think he'll make some very positive strides in the fall.
BN: Bielema said the way Byrne plays could be the difference in Wisconsin being a good team and a great team. Do you agree with that and why or why not?
Rudolph: It just depends. I think there are a lot of guys that are pivotal and he's one of them. I think that Jake did a great job with what we asked him to do last year. We might ask him to do a little more this year so if he can keep up that same level of performance, which I expect, I think it'll definitely culminate in a very positive way and impact the result of the team.
BN: Can you talk about the strides Sam Arneson has made this season in his first camp?
Rudolph: Sam has a bright, bright future. He's a very talent kid. He's smart and picks things up fast. He's tough and I really like his future a lot. He has the ability to help us this year, but we have to wait and see to make sure it's the smart thing to do to play him.
BN: Can you tell that his dad was a former tight end at Wiscosnin with some of the things he knows?
Rudolph: I understand from both mom and dad that he has some talented family members athletically. His skills certainly don't surprise me knowing that.
BN: Can you talk about the other true freshman tight ends you have been working with in Austin Traylor and Austin Maly?
Rudolph: They have bought in to the attitude of the program. Maly missed a little bit of time with a concussion, but he has really flashed with some different things. He's a really smart kid. I think he has a great future. Traylor has battled through everything and I like the physical way he plays. Obviously, he's athletic, so that combination works pretty good.
BN: At Walnut Ridge, he played both defensive end and tight end. Did you always see him playing on offense?
Rudolph: We thought he had the ability to do both. At the end of his senior year, I thought he was a much better tight end. I think he's just a talented kid. His ability shows up. He's a talented basketball player.
BN: Where does Sherard Cadogan fit into the mix with this group?
Rudolph: He'll have a big role. He can certainly have a big impact. He has the ability to really help us. It's kind of the same deal we had with Arneson last year where we brought him a long just in case we needed him. We never did, so we kept the redshirt on him and were really able to develop him.
BN: It always seems like Brian Wozniak is close to making a jump until an injury of some kind sets him back. Is staying healthy the biggest challenge with him right now?
Rudolph: That and the big thing is that we've had to hold him back on some vertical routes. He's been full go for about the last two weeks, which is key for him. He's getting the reps he needs, but we just have to be smart with him.
BN: How deep do you think your group can go where you would still fill comfortable with who is on the field and the production doesn't suffer?
Rudolph: I think that's a good question. You feel the most comfortable with Byrne and Pedersen because they are older and they have been out there and performed well before. I think Wozniak has made some big strides and I look for him to help us at some points this year. I don't worry about his knowledge or where he is in that respect. He's gotten a lot stronger, so I am excited about that. Obviously Sherard being able to play three spots is key, but we just need to get him rolling.