When Wisconsin began its season against Western Kentucky on Aug. 31, tight end Jake Ferguson wasn’t listed on the two-deep depth chart.
And with the Badgers preparing to play Nebraska more than a month later, he’s still not there. (Editor's note: starting tight end Zander Neuville is now out for the season, announced by Paul Chryst Thursday morning)
But while Ferguson technically hasn’t climbed up the positional ladder, his play through four games tells a vastly different story. The redshirt freshman is second on the team in receptions (12) and receiving yards (166), carving out an unexpected role as a security blanket for Alex Hornibrook.
Much of that production has come in the absence of the team’s starting tight end Zander Neuville. The redshirt senior has only played in two games this season due to various injuries.
Still, there is reason to be optimistic about Ferguson’s potential, especially as he has three more seasons of eligibility left to improve his craft.
But regardless of what Ferguson could become in the future, the Badgers need his production now.
A glance at the Badgers’ record books reveals the importance of tight ends in Madison. Travis Beckum, Troy Fumagalli, Garrett Graham and Jacob Pedersen are all recent grads who are top-20 in receiving yards. Ever since the Badgers started inching towards more pass-happy attacks around the turn of the century, the team has had a capable pass-catching tight end.
The Badgers still like to throw the ball; they might even have their best passing attack since Russell Wilson left Camp Randall. The only question to answer is which tight end will step up for the remainder of the season.
All signs point to Ferguson being that guy. Neuville was admittedly buried behind Fumagalli on the depth chart the last two seasons, but never caught more than nine balls in a season. Penniston has never hauled in more than seven.
Ferguson already has 12 this season as the team’s nominal third-stringer.
While Barry Alvarez’s grandson hasn’t exactly made national headlines, his ascent isn’t too dissimilar to Jonathan Taylor’s last season. Both players started the season as unknowns in talented position groups before quickly proving their talent.
Ferguson’s last game against Iowa was that breakout moment. Four catches, 58 yards and a first-career touchdown against formidable Big Ten competition proved he was more than a flat-track bully or a stat-padder feasting on weak teams.
The tight end has another chance to impress this Saturday, when the Badgers welcome the struggling Nebraska Cornhuskers. Purdue tight end Brycen Hopkins torched the Huskers for a 5-103-1 line last weekend, and the team has allowed 248.8 passing yards per game.
Ferguson has shone against bottom-feeders, and under the lights at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.
Now it’s time to show out for the Camp Randall crowd against conference rival Nebraska.