While the main focus of last year’s University of Wisconsin football season centered on Corey Clement’s health and a revolving door of starting offensive linemen, the tight end group may have suffered from more injury setbacks than any other position.
Eric Steffes missed part of fall camp before also suffering an ankle injury later in the year; Troy Fumagalli battled multiple injuries early in the season; and Austin Traylor spent seven weeks recovering from a broken arm.
This year, with Traylor gone and a group of unknowns behind Fumagalli and Steffes, UW must wonder if it would have the depth to cope with a similar situation in 2016.
“That’s the best part about spring ball,” Fumagalli said. “You kind of figure that out. It’s kind of a chance for those young guys to get familiar, get comfortable being out there so come fall there’s no hiccups, they’re ready to go and we have some depth.”
The young players most likely to emerge as contributors this year are redshirt freshmen Kyle Penniston and David Edwards.
Penniston was an early enrollee last season and entered UW as one of the highest-ranked recruits in the school’s 2015 recruiting class. Tight ends coach Mickey Turner believes the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Penniston is mature enough to play right now but needs to continue building strength to hold his own in the Big Ten Conference.
The 6-foot-7, 254-pound Edwards also was considered an impressive prospect but could fill more of a blocking role if Steffes were to miss time.
“I think Kyle and Dave have both come a long way since last year at this time,” Fumagalli said. “Just playing a little faster — I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed. From your first year to second year, the game comes a little slower. It comes a little easier that way. I think they’re getting there.”
Fumagalli will hope to take his own game to another level this year.
The junior played well once he was healthy last year and finished third on the team in receiving yards. With the departure of Traylor, he could become an even bigger part of the passing game.
“I think despite the injuries, he was slowly growing last year, and I still think he’s growing,” Turner said of Fumagalli. “He wants to be coached. He wants to be told, ‘This is how you get better.’ As long as he keeps that mentality, he’s always going to keep getting better.
“Where he was at the end of the season compared to the start of the season, he was better, and then from the end of the season to now, he’s definitely gotten a little bit bigger, stronger and understands the game plan even that much more. Every day, it’s not a big jump. One piece, keep stacking them up.”
Turner wants Fumagalli, along with every other UW tight end, to better understand every aspect of tight end play — from in-line blocking to pass catching to pass protection. A major goal this spring has been to improve individual weaknesses and became a more well-rounded asset in the offense.
The more versatile UW’s tight ends are, the less of an issue depth will be.
“If someone gets injured, then there’ll be some moving around. As a tight end, you can’t just know that one role on the line,” Turner said. “The more you can do, the more valuable you are. And that’s why, with the depth, I’ve got to cross-train those guys and make sure they know as much as you can.
“I need you to be good on the line. I need you to be good in pass pro. I need you to be good at catching the ball. That way if somebody did get hurt and that was their forte, the next guy at least can fill in and know what he’s doing.”