Back when Kevin Cosgrove was coaching defense for the University of Wisconsin, the offense he worked against in practice every day had certain characteristics that never changed.
Cosgrove will return to Camp Randall Stadium today as the defensive coordinator for New Mexico and much about the Badgers offense — massive linemen, power running game, play-action passing — will look familiar to him.
One thing won’t: The tight end position.
During Cosgrove’s 14 seasons as a UW assistant, including a successful run as defensive coordinator from 1994 to 2003, UW’s tight ends were roughly the size of dormitories. In the Badgers’ ground-oriented offense, the tight ends looked like offensive tackles who had wandered into the wrong line when they were handing out uniform numbers.
There was a reason far that. Job one for UW’s tight ends under former coach Barry Alvarez was to block for the running game. Size was imperative; speed and hands were optional.
For nearly a decade, UW’s primary tight ends were Eric Grams (6-foot-4, 265 pounds), Dague Retzlaff (6-8, 275), John Sigmund (6-4, 265) and Tony Paciotti (6-4, 270). Not a one of them ever caught more than 26 passes in his career. Some couldn’t break 5.0 in the 40-yard dash.
Fast forward to 2018, when tight end has become one of the most integral and dynamic positions in UW’s offense. During Paul Chryst’s tenure as offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2011 and again as head coach starting in 2015, the Badgers have had one All-Big Ten Conference tight end after another in the program, sometimes two or three at a time.
Nothing has changed this year, which was apparent in fifth-ranked UW’s season-opening victory over Western Kentucky last week. Senior Zander Neuville sat out due to injury and sophomore Luke Benzschawel hurt his knee early in the game, but all that did was give redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson a chance to shine in his college debut. Junior Kyle Penniston also played extensively, though it was Ferguson who stole the spotlight with four catches for 43 yards.
The conclusion: Despite losing All-Big Ten tight end Troy Fumagalli to the NFL, the position has remained highly productive.
“That’s just what we do,” senior guard Michael Deiter said. “It seems like it’s cookie-cutter. We get another new guy and they’re ready to play. They can block, they can catch, they can do it all. It’s definitely a really big component of our offense. We wouldn’t be as good as we are without really good tight ends.”
Rarely has UW been without really good tight ends with Chryst in charge of offense. In addition to Fumagalli, first-team All-Big Ten selections who played for Chryst since 2005 were Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham, Lance Kendricks and Jacob Pedersen. And that doesn’t include Owen Daniels, who had a better NFL career than any of them. Those six combined for 659 career catches.
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UW’s current stable of tight ends is deep and balanced. Neuville (6-5, 252) and Benzschawel (6-6, 247) are the best blockers. Penniston (6-4, 243) and Ferguson (6-5, 239) are the best pass receivers.
However, they are typical of UW’s tight ends these days. Some start out primarily as blockers, some start out primarily as receivers and almost all end up as complete players.
Neuville, the most experienced of the tight ends, is expected to play against New Mexico after missing the opener. If last week’s game is any indication, Neuville will be paired with Penniston in two-tight end sets, with Ferguson playing in likely passing situations.
But the lines have blurred with UW’s tight ends. Neuville has become a better pass receiver after switching from defense two years ago and Ferguson has become a more capable blocker, something he showed on Jonathan Taylor’s two long touchdown runs against Western Kentucky.
With Neuville in the lineup, UW will have its top three tight ends available, something it is looking forward to.
“If you look at Zander, he’s an unreal blocker,” Deiter said. “He can also catch. He can do everything. And then you get new faces in there who can still do it and it just adds to the depth.”
It was Ferguson, however, who generated the most buzz last week. All four of his catches went for first downs, giving quarterback Alex Hornibrook the same kind of outlet in key situations that Fumagalli did last year.
“He just had a one-on-one matchup and he did a great job of winning every single one of those,” Hornibrook said “He knew coming in that there were going to be some third downs where we were coming his way. We saw a coverage that we could take advantage of and he did a good job on every one. They knew it was coming and he was still winning.”
The key to it all is Chryst. His mantra is to get the best players on the field and find a way to use them effectively. And since few positions in football allow for more creativity than tight end, he’s not afraid to use two or three at a time.
“We have a great room of tight ends,” Hornibrook said. “Obviously, Jake made a lot of plays (last week). There are some other guys that could make plays, too. They’re accountable. We can go after them and target them when we need to.”
As Cosgrove would no doubt tell you, it wasn’t always that way.