Badgers' passing game could lean heavily on talented tight ends
AUG 10, 2013 2:49p ET
Questions abound, as they tend to do during this time of year. But one position group that should create a measure of calmness for even the most panic-stricken fans is at tight end, where the depth of talent rivals any team in the country.
Consider this: Wisconsin's top four tight ends have combined to play in 125 games with 38 starts.
"If we were anywhere else, even in the same conference, all four of us would be competing at starting jobs wherever we were," fifth-year senior tight end Brian Wozniak said. "It's good for us because it makes the top four real competitive."
The top four -- fifth-year seniors Jacob Pedersen, Wozniak and Brock DeCicco, along with junior Sam Arneson -- are expected to be relied upon even more by a new coaching staff, particularly if Wisconsin's struggles continue in its quest to find a No. 2 wide receiver threat.
That means plenty of formations from offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig that include two and even three tight ends. One such formation is known as 13 personnel, which features one running back, one wide receiver and three tight ends.
"Last year we had 13 personnel," Pedersen said. "I wouldn’t say we used it all the time. We used it in just some goal-line sets. But Coach Ludwig feels comfortable with it no matter if it's first-and-10 or third-and-one. He's going to call 13 personnel if he feels like it's a good play for us."
Pedersen has garnered almost all of the accolades among Wisconsin's tight ends. He is the reigning Big Ten Tight End of the Year and a first-team all-conference pick after catching 27 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns.
In his career, Pedersen has caught 65 passes for 843 yard with 14 touchdowns -- which already ranks 11th in UW program history.
"He's had a real special career and I know he's looking to improve still every day," Arneson said. "And we see that and we realize we've got to keep pushing. We know he's going to keep improving, and we've got to stay right there with him."
Last season, Wozniak recorded nine catches for 94 yards. And Arneson had four catches for 19 yards, including two touchdowns -- one against Indiana and one in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska. Throw in DeCicco, a University of Pittsburgh transfer who had two touchdown catches at Pitt, and the four are capable of producing in the passing game, even if they all haven't had as many opportunities as Pedersen.
"I think the quarterbacks will start to see that we are a viable option and could possibly be second and third options, even maybe first and second at certain parts of the field, which is huge," Wozniak said. "We play real hard. We work real hard in order to be those kind of options."
Although all four tight ends are interchangeable, they do possess different assets on the field. Wozniak, for example, weighs 15 pounds more than Pedersen (255-240) and is a better end-line blocker. Pedersen excels when he is spread out wide and can move in space. DeCicco is a solid route runner, while Arneson can do a little of everything well.
Though Pedersen has the statistics, all four players said they had developed an atmosphere in their position room that fostered communication and growth. For those reasons, there isn't a specific leader among the group. They freely share information and pick up habits from each other.
"If Sam runs a good route, I say, 'OK I like that, I'm going to take that,'" Wozniak said. "If he sees me do something well with my hands on blocking, he says, 'OK, I like that.' He's going to take that, too. It's good for us because the competition level is so high, it brings our A-game everyday."
Pedersen, Wozniak, Arneson and DeCicco spent the offseason working on their pass-catching abilities, and it already has shown some in fall practice. Wozniak caught a couple of touchdowns during red-zone skeleton drills during Friday's practice. Pedersen, DeCicco and Arneson all caught passes during a portion of Saturday's drills, and Ludwig's willingness to use all four has them optimistic about what this season could bring.
If all goes according to plan, tight end formations at Wisconsin will no longer simply be exclusively about grounding and pounding opponents to death in the run game.
"The more we can be on the field, I think the better we'll be," Arneson said. "We make a lot of matchup problems. If we're spread out, it's hard for a safety or a corner to guard a big guy like that. I think coaches are really trying to make an effort to use more of us and really utilize our talents."
Fumbling woes: Wisconsin had several problems with the quarterback-center snap exchange during Saturday's practice -- two involving center Dan Voltz and two involving backup center Chris Gill.
The first problem came during 11-on-11 drills with quarterback Curt Phillips and Voltz, and it resulted in a fumble. Later, quarterback Tanner McEvoy and Gill botched a snap exchange. One play later, Gill hit a receiver in motion with his snap while McEvoy stood behind in the shotgun formation. Both Gill and McEvoy were immediately pulled from the drill. Finally, quarterback Joel Stave and Voltz fumbled a snap, which resulted in a turnover.
Stave completed 5 of 7 passes during all live drills that were open to the media and continued to state his case as the most accurate passer. Phillips completed 4 of 6 passes, which included a drop on an out route by receiver Jordan Fredrick. McEvoy completed 3 of 7 passes and barely overthrew Fredrick on a play-action pass attempt down the left sideline.
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