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How Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson has increased his value to the team this season
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How Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson has increased his value to the team this season

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Tight end Jack Eschenbach can’t help but laugh as he tells the story.

Jake Ferguson, Escehnbach’s teammate and starter at his position for the University of Wisconsin football team, had a Zoom class this spring scheduled for the same time as one of the team’s 15 spring practices. As Eschenbach tells it, rather than missing one or the other, Ferguson pulled up the class on his phone and had it on the sideline. Ferguson would pop off his helmet and listen in on the class between reps.

Did the senior tight end and fixture in the lineup since his redshirt freshman season need to be taking reps during a spring practice? Probably not. Could he afford to miss a day? Yeah.

But talk to UW players and coaches, and they all will tell you Ferguson doesn’t miss chances to develop his skills on the field. It’s why he’s been one of the most consistent weapons for the Badgers throughout his career and why he’s produced at least one catch in every game he’s played.

The No. 18 Badgers (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) head to Minnesota this weekend with almost every goal they had this season still attainable. An undefeated record and College Football Playoff berth are about the only items off UW’s preseason checklist. The Badgers win the Big Ten West Division with a victory over Minnesota (7-4, 5-3), which would make three division titles since Ferguson has been on the roster.

All that’s on Ferguson’s mind this week is keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe in UW’s possession.

“I think one of the toughest times was my redshirt freshman year (2018) and we lost the Axe,” Ferguson said. “Just seeing the seniors walk off that field, it was really tough and knowing that I probably could have done a little bit more just to make sure that that didn’t happen. So after seeing that, I really wanted to make sure that seniors who were leaving really didn’t have that feeling ever again. This year, me being a senior, it definitely makes it that much more important.”

Ferguson has been around the program his entire life, learning early how Axe week can define a season. He’s coming off a career-high 92 yards against Nebraska last week, giving him 1,555 for his career. That yardage ranks 15th all-time at UW and third among tight ends, behind Travis Beckum and Troy Fumagalli. He could pass Fumagalli with career-average games against Minnesota, in a potential Big Ten title game and bowl game. Ferguson has the program record for consecutive games with a catch (45) and has six games with at least three catches this season.

He’s touted as a model of consistency, but coach Paul Chryst said he’s seen Ferguson take steps forward this season that have helped him set a career high with 39 catches with at least two games to go. Ferguson said he always tells Chryst before games to get him the ball and he’ll make plays. Chryst said the conversation happens more frequently.

“That’s the same talk we always have,” Chryst said with a laugh. “I love being around him. It’s not every week, it’s every day. But he means it. He will do anything for this team.”

An improved leader

Ferguson said he never prepares any remarks before he addresses the team. That’s become a regular occurrence this season, especially Friday nights in the team hotel. He’s a voice that carries respect because no one can deny his effort on and off the field.

He says he tries to reiterate what coaches have been saying throughout the week and keep the team focused on its identity.

“It’s usually all off the dome,” he said. “I don’t even think about it at all and then I kind of get up there and someone gives me the nod and I’m like, ‘Oh, all right, here we go. I guess it’s me.’”

Eschenbach is waiting in the wings to be a replacement for Ferguson next season. He said Ferguson voicing his thoughts is impactful, especially when he needs to get the offense back on the same page.

“He’ll kind of take control of the offense, he’ll pull us all aside, scream at us if we need it, give us words of motivation,” Eschenbach said. “I look up to him and when I see him juiced, I’m juiced.”

Faion Hicks is part of the same recruiting class as Ferguson and they have seen the program go through ups and downs together. Both became regular players as redshirt freshmen in 2018, and their return to this season’s roster has been crucial — Hicks has 10 passes defended for the nation’s No. 2 defense.

Hicks believes Ferguson’s ability to share his passion for the team is motivating.

“As a senior, you always want to give that feeling to everybody else of what this game means to you,” Hicks said. “For him to express that, it gets everybody going.”

Ferguson said he never had trouble being vocal growing up, and he was that kind of leader for his Madison Memorial teams as a prep star. Despite being a starter and valued player on the Badgers’ offense, it took him until this season to feel comfortable being the one to speak up.

“I think early in my years, I didn’t really think I had a place to do that,” Ferguson said. “We always had older guys like Chris (Orr) who would come in and talk. I really didn’t find my place, I guess, until this year. A little bit last year, but not nearly as much as what I’ve done this year.”

UW tight ends coach Mickey Turner said speaking up used to be something he needed to encourage Ferguson to do, but he now is taking the initiative.

“He’s as open-book as they come,” Turner said. “I tell guys all the time in this program, if you work hard, that’s your only currency. If you put in the work, you can be as funny or goofy as you need to be and you’ll still be respected because of it. He is definitely the example of that.”

A smarter player

Opposing defenses have been focused on stopping Ferguson for much of the past two seasons. UW’s passing struggles last season were due in part to teams double- and triple-teaming Ferguson once the starting wide receivers were injured.

That strategy has been employed often this season, too, but an improved rushing attack and healthy receivers have made defenses pay for giving too much attention to Ferguson. He has found a way to get open for quarterback Graham Mertz despite the variety of coverages and schemes against him.

“He puts it on tape,” Mertz said. “And even if the ball doesn’t go to him on it, maybe he’s the second or third (read) of my progression, he’s still winning on a double team, which is pretty special. I’ve thrown with (Kansas City Chief tight end Travis) Kelce, I’ve seen guys like in the league that are playing and he moves right there with them.”

Junior linebacker Leo Chenal said Ferguson is as difficult a tight end to cover as there is in practice. He knows watching Ferguson work from the sidelines during games that any catch has a chance to become a bigger play.

“That first step, boom, it’s like an automatic guarantee he’s going to make somebody miss,” Chenal said. “When he catches it five yards down the field, you’re thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got a first down,’ when he catches it because he makes the guy miss so well.”

Ferguson accepted an invitation last week to the Senior Bowl, a January showcase for NFL coaches and scouts. He likely would’ve been drafted had he gone to the NFL after last season, but he returned to UW trying to become a more complete tight end.

That process started with telling Turner to not pull any punches in film review.

“I made it a focus this year. I told him, ‘I want you to be really hard on me,’” Ferguson said. “’Don’t give me any leeway. If I’m off by one little bit — my hands off, if I take a fall step, if anything’s off — I want you to give me a hard grade.’”

Ferguson has been in Turner’s office multiple times a week going over extra film and trying to fine-tune his technique. Turner, a former UW tight end, said an underrated aspect of Ferguson’s game has been his availability. Ferguson has played 2,535 snaps over the past four years and hasn’t missed a game due to injury in the past three seasons.

“Even in practice, he’s not a guy that’s looking to take days off in practice, which I really appreciate because it sends a good message to the rest of the team,” Turner said. “They’ve seen his example and action, so when he speaks up, they listen.”

He’s burned Minnesota in the past, with nine catches for 101 yards and a TD. He hasn’t let his mind think about getting to participate in the Badgers’ senior tradition of chopping down the goalpost with the Axe.

He said he’ll worry about that when the game’s over.

“I’d rather have a good game and come out with a ‘W,’” he said. “That’s the first thing.”


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