While Danny O’Brien silenced many of the questions around Wisconsin’s wide-open quarterback competition for the time being, coaches can’t say the same about the tight end spot.
With one established receiving option in Jacob Pedersen, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011, there’s a lengthy list of candidates for filling out the rest of the two- and three-tight end sets common in the Badgers’ offense. Fielding only two other tight ends who have seen time on the field for Wisconsin – redshirt junior Brian Wozniak and sophomore Sam Arneson – no one outside of Pedersen has proven themselves as a true receiving threat.
But with inexperienced players like Austin Traylor and Austin Maly – both redshirt freshmen – showing promising talent this spring, new tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner has an array of options as he selects his top tight ends.
“Honestly, everybody,” Faulkner, a former UW running back, said of who is competing for a starting spot. “The younger guys who came in the class last year, Arneson, Maly and Traylor, that group of guys, I think [have] a chance to be really special but they haven’t played a lot of football yet.”
In a system that features tight ends as key blockers in the run-first offense, Wisconsin has also built a legacy of success in using tight ends as major threats through the air. Though Faulkner said that Badger fans can expect much of the same from the position under its new coach, it is still unclear exactly who will be lining up opposite Pedersen come Sept. 1.
And the fact that up to six different players are fighting for that second spot leaves the tight end position as one of the deepest on the team. Such a heated competition is something the single proven starter believes will encourage every player to step up his level of play.
“I was sitting on the sidelines the first two weeks, and I was poking my coach in the back saying, ‘Let me play, I’m getting worried,'” Pedersen joked. “They’re all playing really well, so it’s great, they’re going to push me to get better and hopefully I can keep pushing them.”
Despite the competition for the other spot, the unquestioned leader of this frequently overlooked, but critical, component of the Badgers’ high-scoring attack is Pedersen. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the 6-foot-4 end finished with 356 receiving yards and grabbed eight touchdown passes in his second year suiting up for the cardinal and white.
Filling in as a kind of No. 3 wide receiver for Russell Wilson last year, Pedersen now finds himself responsible for grooming a collection of tight ends with no shortage of upside, but also a limited experience at the Big Ten level. Not a player known for his inspirational pregame speeches, UW’s top tight end in 2011 brings an understated approach to that mentorship role.
“I say stuff when I have to, I’ll talk to them, help them through some of the stuff I know, but I try to lead by example,” Pedersen said. “All the tight ends we got, they’ve got all the potential in the world to be great here. I let them do their own thing and just kind of give them little hints and bits as we go.”
Though Faulkner and players have a tough time naming any favorites to start this season, at this point Wozniak and Arneson look to be the leading candidates. But as Wozniak continues to battle an injury, Arneson – a bruiser at 255 pounds – has practiced with Pedersen in two-tight end sets in spring practice thus far.
With both never catching a single pass in a game day situation since arriving in Madison, Wozniak and Arneson saw significant time on the field last year as special teams players and blockers. Such roles remain an essential part of one of the offenses’ most versatile positions, but that focus will be changing for the duo as the Badgers fill the spot of the now-departed Jake Byrne.
But for Arneson, who appeared in 10 games last season, adding a receiving dimension to his game is a welcome change.
“You still got to block, that’s rule No. 1,” Arneson said. “But it’s been great running some more routes, getting some more looks from those quarterbacks, I’ve worked with them more. Getting some passes, I can’t complain about that.”
Working with such a large group of tight ends competing for playing time, Faulkner noted that he may use some players interchangeably depending on the play and the opponent.
Outside of Wozniak and Arneson, the only player at the position with collegiate experience is Brock DeCicco, who transferred from Pittsburgh in 2011. After sitting out last season, the redshirt junior, who started three games and reeled in three touchdowns in his lone season as a Panther, could challenge the aforementioned duo to play opposite Pedersen.
Despite their youth, the remaining tight ends have eased the load on their new coach, who has been impressed by the skills – both receiving and blocking – they have shown early.
“They are beyond their years in terms of football,” Faulkner said. “They’re very smart, they pick things up, they were well-coached from the last staff. They understand a lot of football, and it doesn’t make it that hard.”
As Pedersen and co. look to once again be an essential piece of a Wisconsin attack that grew much more threatening with the addition of O’Brien, a chance at grabbing a coveted starting spot became equally attractive. Yet the depth of the position has cultivated an attitude among the tight ends that coaches often have to work hard to instill.
“You can’t [be complacent] with the depth and talent we’ve got,” Arneson said.