Jake Ferguson has already been turning heads in just his first season as a redshirt freshman for the University of Wisconsin football team. The tight end is second on the Badgers in receiving yards and tied for first in touchdowns.
After losing their primary passing option, tight end Troy Fumagalli, to the NFL last year, the University of Wisconsin football team began the season unsure who their next receiving threat would be. With Quintez Cephus departing the program amid sexual assault allegations from July and Danny Davis being suspended two games for his involvement in the incident the team also lost two of their top three wide receivers in yards, receptions and touchdowns to start the year.
In total, this represented 1,466 yards and 55 percent total receiving yardage that the Badgers would need to replace. In terms of scoring Fumagalli, Cephus and Davis caught 15 of the Badgers 25 passing touchdowns. If you exclude Davis, who returned in week three, those numbers drop to 1,048 yards and 39 percent of the receiving game and 10 of Wisconsin’s 25 passing touchdowns.
With such a large portion of their offense missing Wisconsin would need to be creative in finding options for quarterback Alex Hornibrook to get the ball to. Though wide receiver A.J. Taylor has unsurprisingly led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, Ferguson’s involvement in the offense has surprised Badger fans and outsiders alike.
The tight end currently has 259 receiving yards and two touchdowns, placing him second in both categories. His biggest game so far was in a tight contest at Iowa where Ferguson stepped up for 58 yards and a score in the tight 28–17 contest.
Much of this early success can be credited to the chemistry he and Hornibrook have developed both on and off the field with the two texting regularly.
“He’s texting me all throughout the night — actually texted me last night at 12 and I’m usually in bed by 10. He texted me multiple times ‘Jake, Jake wake up. You’re gonna have a lot of these looks.’ It’s kind of annoying at sometimes when I’m trying to sleep but at the same time it’s good to have that.”
Ferguson’s comments came after Hornibrook found the tight end in the end zone during the 41–24 rout of Nebraska.
After the game, Hornibrook responded to Ferguson’s comments about the developing relationship between the tight end and quarterback.
“He’s always talking about my texts,” said Hornibrook. “He did a great job winning in one on one situations. That’s something I can count on him to do and he did a great job today getting open.”
What is perhaps most shocking about Ferguson’s rise is how he stayed so under the radar despite his athleticism at the tight end position. Going into Wisconsin’s first game against Western Kentucky, Ferguson wasn’t even listed on the two-deep depth chart.
In a conversation with tight end coach Mickey Turner in February he mentioned only Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston by name as the two players that would take over at tight end, though Turner did mention there were some freshmen he had high expectations for.
Despite exceeding early expectations, Ferguson still has areas of his game he needs to improve. Though he has been exceptional in his route running and reliability as a receiver Ferguson’s blocking can still keep him off the field at times. And with Neuville, the Badgers leading blocker at tight end, suffering a season-ending injury the pressure will only be greater for Ferguson to develop those skills.
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Though Neuville didn’t often show up in the box score as a receiver, his blocking abilities were enough to put him on the John Mackey Award watch list this season. Both the Badger coaches and Ferguson realize these are large, but necessary shoes to fill if they want to maintain the same level of offensive production.
“[Neuville] was a monster in the blocking game really could do everything,” said Ferguson. “So when he went down early last week it was Coach Turner’s message we really need to step up and take on those roles.”
While Ferguson still has a ways to go in becoming an every-down player, his performance so far puts him in an excellent position to become the next great Badger tight end.