MADISON – Having played tight end in Paul Chryst’s Wisconsin system, and having been around some pretty good ones who are still earning N.F.L. paychecks, tight ends coach Mickey Turner knows what it takes to be successful at the position.
And when he evaluates his small group of players, Turner doesn’t deny that junior tight end Troy Fumagalli has a huge ceiling in front of him. He just hopes some other players can match hm.
The last year has been hard on the tight end group’s numbers. Not only did Austin Traylor graduate, Wisconsin moved David Edwards to right tackle and T.J. Watt to outside linebacker, leaving six tight ends in fall camp.
That number increased Monday when Wisconsin moved sophomore defensive end Zander Neuville to the position and will continue to increase when Green Bay New Lutheran freshman Gabe Lloyd joins the program at the start of the school year, but the group still lacks a true veteran presence.
“We need these young guys to grow up quick,” Turner said. “We couldn’t lose one more. We wouldn’t want to send another one to another position or have one get a serious injury. We need all of them right now to either play in the game or play on scout team.”
Eric Steffes is a veteran by age (he’s the lone remaining member of the 2011 signing class) but has been rarely utilized, in part because of nagging injuries and veterans ahead of him. Kyle Penniston is coming off his redshirt season after enrolling in January 2015, but both will be counted in a variety of ways to make the offense tick.
Steffes is the bigger and stronger player, making him ideal to execute blocks on the line and catching short passes, but has tried to learn other positions to be the team’s utility knife.
“If we got in a bind, didn’t have a guy here and someone had to take a receiver spot and run a short route out wide, he would know that,” Turner said. “He can fix some things for you. You wouldn’t put him on a deep route, but if you get a pinch, Eric could fix it.”
Penniston was purely a receiver coming out of high school but has built his body into the position. As Turner put it, “he keeps doing things well.”
“Consistency is his big deal right now,” Turner said. “He hasn’t had a practice where every rep is perfect, but in practice he flashes. He’ll catch a big ball, make a good block. Coming from a spread system in high school and not being a 6-6 guy, he’s pretty impressive in the run game with how he can bend, how he can hit. He just needs to do it the entire time. He’s a guy I want to push to be a complete do-it-all kind of guy.”
A big benefit for Penniston has been studying under Fumagalli, who has gradually grown with his responsibilities throughout his brief career. After maximizing his handful of reps as a redshirt freshmen with big catches opposite Sam Arneson, Fumagalli finished with 28 catches last season, overcoming how own injury to fill a vital spot when Austin Traylor went down with a broken arm.
Once having to remake his game to add strength and flexibility, Fumagalli has become more comfortable putting his hand in the dirt and firing off the line of scrimmage.
“The biggest thing is when Troy is confidence; he’ll go out there and do whatever you want him to do,” Turner said. “As he gets older being a veteran and next year being a senior veteran, he’s got to play with that confidence that says ‘I’m the best tight end.’ We’ve got to keep pushing him.”
Urgency is part of the reason Turner has given opportunities to redshirt freshman Mitchell Herl and true freshmen Luke Benzschawel and Jake Hescock. Hescock’s weight room numbers and conditioning were ahead of the other two, but all three have been handling the sporadic work on the second-team unit.
Turner said the staff hasn’t crossed the bridge of whether Benzschawel or Hescock will be needed to play this year instead of redshirt, although there’s a good chance Hescock may be on the traveling roster and be used in an emergency.
“Hopefully the next couple weeks we can bump them into some real two reps to see how they do against decent competition,” Turner said. “They’re in a great position now because we have a practices left, and I know Troy, Kyle and Steffes will be dealing with their one reps. I don’t want to overdo them, so those young guys will have to get a ton of stuff.”