With departure of Fumagalli, young Badger tight ends look to step up

Zander Neuville is just one of three UW tight ends that is hoping to replace the production of Troy Fumagalli, who is expected to be a mid-to-late round pick in the NFL Draft.

Image By: Brandon Moe

In 2017, Troy Fumagalli was second team All-American, first team All-Big Ten and led the Wisconsin Badgers in receptions and receiving yards. But Fumagalli is preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft and is a likely mid-round pick.

Junior Kyle Penniston and sophomore Luke Benzschawel are ready to fill his void.

“It’ll be fun,” Penniston said. “I’ve kind of been sitting behind Fumagalli for a couple of years, which has been kind of good in a way. I’ve been learning, picking up on all the stuff he does well, things that might help me in my game. It’s been good but I’m excited for a bigger role this year, to help the team and to kind of just show what I got.”

Penniston was used sparingly in the passing game in 2017, showing Badgers fans mere glimpses of what he is capable of. He played in all 14 games, starting eight, and ended this past season with seven receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown.

But despite his rather pedestrian numbers, he’s ready to battle for his spot as the main tight end in UW’s passing game.

At one point during Tuesday’s spring practice, Penniston shoved linebacker Chris Orr after the redshirt sophomore linebacker broke up a pass and stood over a fallen Penniston. Two plays later, Penniston responded with a touchdown reception.

From watching Fumagalli for two seasons, Penniston knows his job won’t be easy.

“Playing tight end at Wisconsin is pretty hard, it’s not for everyone,” Penniston said. “If it were easy, a lot of kids would be playing it. It’s a lot of grit, it’s a lot of hard work. I think you saw last year, he put a lot of that stuff in and it paid off for him.”

Luke Benzschawel only appeared in five games for the Badgers in 2017 before going out with a right leg injury. He knows he has a lot of work ahead of him before stepping into a bigger role in 2018.

“I just have to take it day by day, grinding through spring ball, grinding through fall camp, do well in summer lifting,” Benzschawel said.

With fellow tight end Zander Neuville not participating in spring practices due to a right leg injury he suffered in the regular season finale at Minnesota, Benzschawel is getting an opportunity to work with the starting offense. While being used mostly as a blocker, Benzschawel wants to improve his pass-catching.

“I’m working on just tightening up my hands, tightening up all my mechanics, working on my feet, working on getting my feet down quicker, just in line stuff, getting my routes right, all that stuff,” Benzschawel said.

Penniston is also benefiting from extra reps.

“With Zander down, I’ve been doing a lot of the run blocking, that’s good for me, I need it,” Penniston said. “It’s something I’ve always considered one of my down points so it’s good for me to get out here and do a lot of that stuff. It’s good to be able to do that because when Zander comes back in the fall, there will be two guys who can do it.”

To expect any one of Penniston, Benzschawel or Neuville to be the next Troy Fumagalli is unrealistic, but a combination of all three can help the Wisconsin offense — which returns 100 percent of its passing yards, 92.3 percent of its rushing yards and 72.4 percent of its receiving yards — negate the loss of its top pass-catcher. If the tight ends can emerge, Penniston and Benzschawel know the Badgers have a chance to have a very special 2018 season.

“I’d be lying if we didn’t say we were trying to make the final four,” Penniston said. “That’s our goal every year. We come in, first day of winter conditioning, that’s where all of our minds are at.”

“The sky’s the limit, really,” Benzschawel added. “We’re just focusing day by day and if we all come together it should be a really fun season.”

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