Spring wrap-up: Tight ends

Part 3 of BadgerNation.com's look back at Wisconsin's 2006 spring football practice season

News and notes — Needing to replace their top three tight ends from last year, the Badgers rotated Andy Crooks (a converted linebacker), Sean Lewis (who converted from quarterback in the fall of 2004) and Travis Beckum (a converted defensive end) with the first team.

Sophomore Dave Peck and redshirt freshman Garrett Graham are likely to head into the summer as the fourth and fifth true tight ends.

However, look for Jeff Stehle to serve a regular role at tight end. Stehle, who converted from defensive tackle to guard this spring, will play tight end in short-yardage situations but is also athletic enough to become a viable receiver.

Spring MVP — Crooks. The junior is the most complete player at the position. A big, physical athlete, Crooks showed the potential to be a good in-line blocker. He has good hands and runs decent routes, but he must learn the finer points of the position.

Springing ahead — It is difficult to make a "jump" when you are pretty new at the position, but credit Lewis, Crooks and Beckum for establishing themselves as cogs in a tight end rotation.

As far as understanding the nuances of the position, Lewis is furthest along — and he has the most experience at the position of any of the returning players. At 6-foot-7, Lewis can be a tough matchup in coverage. He is an above-average athlete for the position and he has good hands, but he still needs to improve his blocking.

Beckum is very much a developmental player, but one who should find a pretty productive niche this season. An outstanding athlete with good hands, Beckum can be dangerous as a receiver. But he will likely be limited to a confined pass-receiving role, largely as an H-back-style tight end. With time Beckum should become a better blocker and he should develop a better sense of the position.

Pressing questions — Back in 2003, teams pretty much knew what was coming when Owen Daniels was in the lineup at tight end. More often than not, the Badgers were passing the ball. A converted quarterback, Daniels was a dangerous pass receiver but not much of a blocker. With time Daniels developed into a commendable blocker and he was a versatile, pretty complete player last season, when he was healthy.

The Badgers were fortunate to have Daniels and Jason Pociask — a well-rounded, if not flashy, player who was a tremendous blocker — at the top of the tight-end depth last year. Joel Nellis gave them three tight ends who were able blockers.

The biggest question facing this group is can anyone block with consistency? Crooks sure looks like he can, but will Lewis and Beckum be able-bodied blockers? Or will the Badgers need to turn to fullback Bill Rentmeester and/or guard/tight end Jeff Stehle whenever they want to run the ball with a pair of tight ends in the lineup?

This corps of tight ends should be productive in the passing game. They may not be as refined as Daniels or Pociask were last season, but they have the potential to be more explosive, particularly with a raw talent such as Beckum. But how advanced will Beckum's understanding of routes and coverages be by the time the season rolls around?

Looking ahead — This group is going to have some growing pains in 2006, but should come along as the season progresses. A year ago this was one of UW's deepest and most experienced positions. Now it is one of its least experienced positions and one of its biggest question marks.

On the plus side for this corps is that offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has an impressive track record when it comes to developing productive tight ends and utilizing them in the passing game. And tight ends coach Bob Bostad's past experience as an offensive line coach can't hurt as they try to learn the nuances of blocking.

As it stands now, expect to see Crooks and Lewis as the top two tight ends, with Beckum rotating in often, particularly on passing downs, and Stehle filling in regularly as well.

Stehle is an intriguing player in that he has the size to be an outstanding blocker at the tight end position and he is athletic enough to force defenses to treat him as a legitimate pass receiver.

The player who may have the highest ceiling at the position is redshirt freshman Garrett Graham. Though he will likely open training camp as the No. 5 tight end, Graham is a skilled athlete with a combination of strength and athleticism that should serve him well down the road.

With the Badgers searching far and wide for a complete player at the position, incoming freshmen Mickey Turner and Kirk DeCremer will likely get a close look in fall training camp.

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