Near the end of a long practice last week, University of Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst dismissed the starters and top backups and summoned the “young guys” for some developmental reps.
Redshirt freshman tight end Jake Ferguson stood behind the line of scrimmage and watched for a few minutes before eventually wandering over to the far end of the practice field, where the veterans at his position group were gathered.
Ferguson later admitted he’s caught between both worlds at this point of his career: not quite a veteran, but more advanced than a typical young guy.
“Half and half now,” he said.
The Badgers don’t have many holes to fill on a talented and experienced offense, but the task of replacing Troy Fumagalli’s production and steadiness at tight end qualifies as an intriguing question mark with the team just more than two weeks away from its 2018 opener.
Fumagalli not only led the Badgers with 46 receptions for 547 yards last season as a senior, he rarely left the field when healthy. UW ran 954 offensive plays last season and, according to tight ends coach Mickey Turner, Fumagalli registered over 700 reps during his final season despite a left leg injury that forced him to miss a game.
The cupboard at a position that Chryst loves to utilize is hardly bare, yet even Turner wondered aloud at the team’s media day earlier this month how all those reps that Fumagalli had gobbled up would be distributed.
Fifth-year senior Zander Neuville, the most experienced tight end on the roster, is coming off an ACL injury. Junior Kyle Penniston has 13 career catches for 158 yards and will have an expanded role. Sophomore Luke Benzschawel had a good spring and summer, Turner said, and appears poised to push for playing time.
And then there’s Ferguson, a former Madison Memorial standout who has the highest ceiling of the group.
“He’s got a ton of potential,” Turner said. “He’s nowhere near it yet, but he’s flashed it. A guy like that, you just throw him into as many situations as you can and keep putting his face to the fire. He’s the kind of kid who will respond to that.”
Ferguson spent last season redshirting and essentially soaking in every ounce of knowledge he could from Fumagalli, a fifth-round pick of the Denver Broncos in April.
“It was a big learning experience,” Ferguson said. “It was just a time for me to develop both on the field and in the weight room. It was awesome being able to sit out there and watch ‘Fume.’ He’d come back and talk to me and tell me all the little details. That’s one of the big things he hit me on is how the little things matter out here.”
Asked to elaborate on the little things that Fumagalli preached, Ferguson said: “Right steps, right releases, just making the right reads on everything.”
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One of the things that made Fumagalli so good — and why he spent so much time on the field — was he could be counted on in every situation. He was both a third-down security blanket for quarterbacks and a dependable blocker in short-yardage situations.
“Versatile,” Ferguson said, “is the word I’d use for him.”
That’s the point Ferguson is trying to reach. His combination of size (6-foot-5, 239 pounds) and speed should give defenders headaches in coverage and could provide Chryst with some enticing playcall options, considering all the talent elsewhere on offense.
Picture UW lining up in its “11” formation with Jonathan Taylor in the backfield, Ferguson at tight end and three wide receivers from the group of Quintez Cephus, Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.
First things first: Ferguson is trying to prove to the coaches that he deserves to be on the field, whether it’s first-and-10, second-and-5 or third-and-long.
To get to that point, Ferguson needs to show he can be a dependable blocker. There’s an understandable learning curve for a youngster who wasn’t asked to block very often while playing wide receiver at Memorial.
“At first last year, it was just knowing what to do,” Ferguson said. “Now that I know what to do, it’s how to do it, doing it right and actually throwing my head in there and winning the line of scrimmage.”
Turner tells his players that blocking is as much about having the right mentality as it is about executing the correct techniques.
“In the tight end room, we talk about coming up to the line and being confident,” said Ferguson, the grandson of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez. “Coach Turner just hit us on coming up to the line and being almost arrogant and wanting to embarrass the guy across from you every time. If we come up to the ball with that mentality, I think we’re going to punish a lot of people.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said he could see that demeanor in Ferguson when the team practiced in full pads for the first time last week.
Rudolph said Ferguson was “very excited to have the opportunity to show that he can be physical in the run game and be consistent. And he took a big step into doing that, which I’m excited about.
“I think that’s his battle. ... He’ll get used to playing against our defense, and then how does he adjust as defenses change? It’s not a 3-4, it’s a 4-3. The pressures are different. The fits are different.”
Turner began camp with a challenge for Ferguson, telling him he could be as good as he wanted to be.
“But I don’t know when that is,” Turner said. “I don’t know if that’s two weeks from now or two months from now or two years from now. But it’ll be fun.”