Paul Chryst’s new wrinkle: Three tight ends

No Badger has more than three receiving touchdowns this season. 

Image By: Brandon Moe

Paul Chryst doesn’t run an offense with exotic spread packages or flashy play calls to try and keep the opposing defense guessing.

The Badgers’ offense doesn’t try to hide what they do. Every other team generally knows what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. Wisconsin runs the ball pro-style, downhill, with heavy personnel groupings in an effort to win the battle at the line of scrimmage.

No matter the personnel, that doesn’t change. What does change is the new wrinkles that Chryst throws in from year to year.

The new look for the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers’ offense in 2017 is its three tight end packages, called “13” personnel because it features one running back and three tight ends, (1-3).

Wisconsin brings Troy Fumagalli, Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston out onto the field to try and create mismatches in both the running and passing game.

“The defense has to choose; do they want to play heavy in the box or do they want to spread it out? That’s the key part,” Fumagalli said. “If we come out 13 and they bring in heavy personnel, we can spread it out too, so just keeping them off balance as best we can, being able to play different roles, is big.”

Through two games in 2017, the Badgers have run three-tight-end formations on 21 percent of their offensive plays, according to Pro Football Focus, tied as their second-most common personnel package.

Twelve months ago, 13 personnel wasn’t in the game plan.

Fumagalli’s presence has been a constant over the last two seasons, but Wisconsin didn’t have enough consistency behind him to get more creative with its formation usage.

Eric Steffes was the team’s number two tight end, and he had a defined role as a blocker, appearing in just under half of UW’s total offensive snaps.

And the depth behind Steffes was almost nonexistent, with then-redshirt freshman Kyle Penniston backing Steffes up along with a converted defensive lineman, Zander Neuville.

It took time for the fresh faces to get up to speed in UW’s offense, but before long, Penniston and Neuville built up their confidence and started to get increased action on offense.

“The last two or three games of the year was when I really felt confident at the position with everything that I was doing,” Neuville said. “Last year, my main thing was run blocking, so this spring and during fall camp when I was healthy, I got a lot more confident catching the ball and learning the routes.”

The walk-on defensive end was asked to switch to offense two weeks before the start of 2016, learning tight end on the fly as he tried to carve out his own spot in the offensive rotation.

Chryst didn’t seem to have full confidence in his tight end depth until week 10 against Northwestern.

That was the game that 13 personnel first debuted for the Badgers’ offense, and it quickly became a small, but successful, wrinkle.

With three tight ends on the field last season, Wisconsin running backs averaged 6.3 yards per carry, according to Pro Football Focus. On all other rushing plays, they averaged 4.7 yards per rush. The extra blockers on the field made it that much more difficult for teams to defend.

“You’ve got a chance to make a longer edge, so there’s more gaps to cancel,” Chryst said. “If they substitute different body types, then you can maybe take advantage of that.”

The Badgers have been able to take advantage of the growth of Neuville and their 13 personnel package as a result has been more prominent this season. Now, as a more complete tight end, Neuville, the redshirt junior is the clear number two on the depth chart with Penniston getting more involved behind him too.

Early on, the results have been encouraging. Wisconsin is averaging 5.2 yards per carry in 13 personnel, but it is the efficiency in the passing game has been most notable.

“I think as a tight end group, we’re pretty athletic overall, so we’re definitely big, taller guys and I think we can all run too,” Neuville said. “If we’re going against safeties, we can win the jump ball, but if we’re going against linebackers, we can maybe body them out with our size or beat them with some speed too.”

Jessi Schoville | The Daily Cardinal

Michigan prevailed in overtime against Indiana in unimpressive fashion last week. 

Alex Hornibrook hasn’t thrown a ton of passes with three tight ends on the field, but when he has, defenses haven’t been able to stop it.

Through two games, the redshirt sophomore quarterback is 5-of-6 for 85 yards, including two of his five total touchdowns. That’s good for a perfect passer rating of 158.3, via PFF.

On all other passes, Hornibrook has a 49.1 completion percentage and a passer rating of just 76.0.

When the Badgers come out with three tight ends on the field, both defenses they faced responded with their base personnel, either 3-4 or 4-3 to try and account for all of the potential blockers in the running game.

That’s created favorable matchups in coverage with tight ends on linebackers and safeties that haven’t been able to keep up with the sheer talent of Fumagalli and the growth of Neuville and Penniston.

“The biggest thing from [Fumagalli] is route running and learning how to threaten guys,” Neuville said. “You’re not always going to be able to beat guys just with speed or just being bigger, but he’s really good at threatening their leverage and doing things like that.”

Chryst has found a new way to threaten opposing defenses with an added wrinkle to his offense. And he’s going to use it to run the ball downhill and force the other team to load up the box.

It doesn’t matter that everyone knows it. No one’s been able to stop it yet.

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