As Sam Arneson saw the end of his football career coming to a close, the Wisconsin tight end was looking for somebody to groom under his wing to be the next solid prospect to carry on the program’s long standing tradition at that position. He didn’t have to look far to find Troy Fumagalli.
The now-sophomore made the most of his limited role last season by catching 14 passes for 187 yards, coming up with critical plays time and again on third down and inside the 20.
“I always told him I was trying to hold on to my spot before he takes over,” Arneson said. “Troy is a great kid. He’s got an incredible future ahead because of the kind of person that he is. I’m super excited to see what he’s going to bring in the future.”
An example of Fumagalli’s timeliness could be seen in Wisconsin’s 34-31 overtime win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Facing a third-and-8 at the Auburn 23 in the extra session, Fumagalli hauled in a 14-yard pass to move the chains, eventually setting up the game-winning field goal.
Even though the position has been crippled by graduation the last two years (five scholarship players), first-year tight end coach Mickey Turner has got two huge assets this season in the 6-6 Fumagalli, who has background as a slot receiver in high school, and senior Austin Traylor, another UW player who has really pushed his game forward in the offseason.
While he started 10 of the 14 games he played last season, Traylor finished with more drops and fumbles than actual catches. It’s a trait he took to heart after the season, especially since he knew Arneson was graduating and new head coach Paul Chryst’s offense would rely heavily on the tight end position.
“Austin is an example of what you want your guys to do,” said Chryst. “Every day since he came back from the bowl he caught 100 balls a day. What that gives you is confidence. You know you put the work in. Austin has got good hands. I think he’s a good route runner, so that’s part of it. I think he’s got confidence in himself.”
That confidence, according to Traylor, comes from hearing directly from the coaches that he would be included in more aspects of the passing game if he would be able to prove himself during spring, summer and fall.
“I talked to the coaches and that whole talk was about me becoming a three down tight end, not coming out on third down and not being used just to block,” said Traylor. “I need to make sure I did everything possible I could to make sure going into the season I put in all the work I could. I want to give it everything I’ve got.”
That dedication was more than just repetitive catching of the football. Traylor said the drops and fumbles were a combination of hand placement and mentality, needing to attack the ball rather than let the pass come to him and make catching passes second nature. All of those subtle changes have come courtesy of offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph.
“That whole concept of attack the ball has helped,” said Traylor. “I feel I am on a very comfortable level on the team with my teammates. It’s helping me on the field with my confidence.”Like many positions entering fall camp, Wisconsin will need to figure out which players will provide them quality depth.
Junior tight end Eric Steffes has played 14 games over the last two seasons on special teams and has good size at 6-5 and 252 pounds. Sophomore T.J. Watt has similar size at 6-5 and 247 pounds but has rarely been healthy over the past two seasons with leg injuries.
To help rebuild some of the depth lost, Wisconsin brought in three tight ends in the 2015 recruiting class. While David Edwards and walk-on Mitchell Herl will almost certainly redshirt as they build their bodies into the role, Kyle Penniston has a nice jump start after enrolling early at semester and going through spring practices.
“We have a bunch of guys who can play,” said Traylor. “Penniston is young and has a lot of great potential. Fumagalli got a taste of it last year and now his role is going to expand. I feel T.J. Watt can help us, too. It’s very multi-dimensional.”
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