Setting the Stage
Wisconsin returns a potential All-American tight end in senior Troy Fumagalli, the offensive most valuable player of the 2017 Cotton Bowl. Around him are a group of promising young tight ends in junior Zander Neuville (who flipped from defensive end last year), sophomore Kyle Penniston, scholarship redshirt freshman Luke Benzschawel and Jake Hescock and walk-ons Mitchell Herl and Gabe Lloyd. Eric Steffes – the last remaining member of the 2011 signing class – graduated.
Player to Watch: Troy Fumagalli
Fumagalli started and ended the year with terrific performances, making seven catches for 100 yards in the win over LSU and six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in the victory over Western Michigan. After combining for 42 catches for 500 yards and a touchdown his first two seasons, Fumagalli finished last year leading the team with 47 catches, resulting in 580 yards and a pair of scores. His speed is a mismatch for a linebacker when he’s lined up in a three-point stance and his size gives him the edge on a corner when he’s split out. He’s truly a nightmare to prepare for.
“He’s unbelievable,” former Western Michigan – and current Minnesota - head coach P.J. Fleck said following the Cotton Bowl. “We knew he was really good, but we don’t have some 6-3 safeties or anything really to contest him … Schematically created some mismatches here and there that we felt, hey, we got a shot to be able to do this. But when you have a 6-6 right end that has range like that … that’s what happens. There were multiple catches he had that were contested, and we just didn’t come down with it.”
Fumagalli’s big catch radius and big mitts allow him to snare a lot of passes. This spring is all about him building a relationship with quarterback Alex Hornibrook, improving his blocking and developing himself into a more dangerous weapon.
Story Line to Watch: Find someone to block like Steffes
Steffes’ best attributes was his ability to clear a path in jumbo/short-yardage situations. The former hockey player embraced contact and could throw his weight around. His presence also allowed him to sneak out for receptions in the flat, resulting in seven catches and a touchdown at Michigan State. UW needs a player who can bring that kind of tenacity to the field.
Neuville is the odds-on favorite to start with that role, but it’ll be interesting to see if Benzschawel or Hescock are ready to embrace that role. Benzschawel – the younger brother of right guard Beau Benzschawel – played defensive line in high school, so he’s used to mixing it up in the trenches. Hescock comes from a high school that primarily ran the ball, a reason why he was named New England Class A lineman of the year and an all-state pick. Being able to push big linemen around in the trenches is the ticket for those two to see the field earlier this year.
End-of-Spring Goal: The Growth of Penniston
Penniston got some value experience last season and delivered a couple critical catches, including the game-winning score against Georgia State and a 54-yard reception against Iowa that was the school’s second-longest pass play of the season. He only has six catches last year and was held without one in eight, so being able to free himself from coverage and open up a passing lane consistently will be his big point of emphasis this spring.