Joel Stave was taking stock of his offensive arsenal earlier this week when the junior quarterback for the Wisconsin football team made an interesting observation.
"I think that's a really special group," he said.
He could have been talking about his veteran-laden line, but wasn't.
He could have been talking about his highly regarded stable of tailbacks, but wasn't.Stave was giving an overview of the tight ends, a group that may not look dynamic on paper at the moment but one that's made a distinct impression on the signal-caller during the first two weeks of preseason practice.
"I think this group can be really good," Stave said.
It appears deeper and more diverse than recent units. Jeff Genyk, the UW tight ends coach, said he has five options "that can play and will play" in fifth-year senior Sam Arneson, juniors Austin Traylor and Derek Watt, sophomore Eric Steffes and redshirt freshman Troy Fumagalli.
Over the past 10 years, the Badgers have never had more than four tight ends catch passes in a given season. Yet during that stretch, a tight end has led UW in receiving five times and there have been eight instances in which one has had at least 30 receptions.
One of the candidates is a familiar standby: Arneson, from Merrill, Wisconsin, has 10 catches for 76 yards and four touchdowns in 36 career games, including six receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns last season. He's the only one of the current group to have a collegiate reception as a tight end.
"I think Sam's going to have a breakout year," Genyk said.
One of the candidates is the Badgers' version of a Swiss Army knife: Watt, from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, is listed as a fullback and can line up at H-back, but has spent most of the offseason working with the tight ends.
"I look for him to be a great weapon," Genyk said.
One of the candidates is your classic veteran tease: Traylor is a quality blocker but has yet to fully use all the tools at his disposal to become a consistent contributor in the passing game.
"It's his time," Genyk said.
"I definitely think I've done stuff in this camp to get a role and be on the field," said Traylor, who had two touchdown receptions in the first scrimmage of camp.
One of the candidates is the classic case of a youngster making a push: Fumagalli has received strong unsolicited reviews from Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen and impressed Genyk along the way.
"Troy Fumagalli has really made some great plays the last two days and I'm excited to see him get into a game," Andersen said after practice Thursday.
"He does an excellent job from a route-running standpoint and catches the ball extremely well," Genyk said of Fumagalli.
"I'm just competing every day and doing what they ask of me," Fumagalli said.
All five have good, rangy size, with Fumagalli (6-foot-5, 246 pounds) and Arneson (6-foot-4, 244 pounds) topping that list.
"It's nice throwing the ball to 6-5, 250-pound guys," Stave said. "They're easy targets to throw to."
With then-senior Jacob Pedersen leading the way last season, the Badgers got a combined 52 receptions for 657 yards and nine touchdowns from their tight ends. That's the most catches from that position since 2010 and the most touchdowns since 2009.
It might be too much to ask of the tight ends to top 100 combined catches, which is what Travis Beckum (75) and Garrett Graham (30) did in 2007.
It might be too much to ask of the unit to top 1,000 yards in receptions, which is what UW got in 2006 (1,109), 2007 (1,310) and 2009 (1,014).
But Genyk likes what he has and what he sees.
"I think we'll match or exceed our numbers from last year," he said.
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