For the first time since 2017, Jake Ferguson will not be donning the cardinal red and white. Last season, Ferguson led the Badgers in receptions (46) and touchdowns (3) and was also second in receiving yards (450). He was both Jack Coan’s and Graham Mertz’s “security blanket” in the pass game over the years. With “Barry Alvarez’s grandson” moving on to the NFL, who will replace him? Last season, the Badgers had multiple tight ends behind Ferguson that missed games due to injuries. Tanor Bortolini was even moved over from the offensive line to help due to all the injuries. The tight end position is a focal point in the Badgers passing game. For the passing attack to have a chance at success, they must find Ferguson’s successor.
The candidate most likely to replace Ferguson is Jack Eschenbach. Eschenbach has had limited opportunities in the pass game and has mostly been used as a blocker. He missed four games last season due to various injuries. With Ferguson now gone, he’ll have the first crack at being the starter.
Prior to walking on and switching to tight end at Wisconsin, he was a wide receiver coming out of high school. He finished the 2021 season with just three catches for 32 yards and no touchdowns. This was due in part to Jake Ferguson’s presence in the offense and a four-game injury absence. With his experience as a high school wide receiver, Eschenbach has the ability to be a major factor in the pass attack.
Despite missing four games, Eschenbach seemed to find consistency as a blocker especially towards the end of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished with a 74.1 grade in pass protection, a career best. Whenever the Badgers ran the ball, Eschenbach would be the tight end they’d use to block. This was due in part to his better blocking ability then Jake Ferguson. Having gotten better as a blocker and his potential to make plays as a receiver; the Badgers are counting on Jack Eschenbach to put it all together this season.
Clay Cundiff makes his return for his junior season. In the beginning of the season, Cundiff and Eschenbach alternated who was behind Jake Ferguson. In five appearances, Cundiff caught three passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Cundiff showed promise early in 2021, however, he would be lost for the season with a lower body injury.
With Cundiff’s early experience, he will most likely begin the season on the two-deep. He showed promise as a pass catcher early in the season. Against Notre Dame, Cundiff was one of the few bright spots in that otherwise dreadful game. He caught his only pass of the game for 43 yards. If Cundiff can become a deep pass playmaker, this would create a fun element for the playbook. However, it will be worth watching to see how he bounces back from last seasons injury.
Hayden Rucci adds some much-needed depth with his return. Last season, the Badgers primarily used him as a blocker. After making appearances in the firs six games of the season; Rucci wouldn’t appear in another game due to undisclosed reasons. Whenever Wisconsin wants to run the ball on third or fourth down, I’d expect to see Rucci in the formation.
Cole Dakovich has yet to see the field. He was lost to a leg injury before the season even began last year. With that, I don’t expect to have a lot of playing time this season. The leg injury really set him back in his development and Wisconsin has tight ends in the room that are ahead of him.
The future looks very bright for the position overall. The Badgers tight end room also features promising recruits from last year in Jack Pugh, Cam Large and Jaylan Franklin. Pugh has so much upside and Franklin development is coming along nicely as a pass catcher. There is also a possibility that Cam Large is moving to fullback.
On the recruiting front, the Badgers picked up local three-star prospect J.T. Seagraves as part of their class of 2022. He’s an interesting recruit and has the tools to be a good tight end. The Badgers need to develop him more and he’s a raw talent and will be spending this season as a redshirt.
In the Las Vegas Bowl, we saw how the Badgers offense struggled when their tight ends weren’t a factor. With the type of offense, the Badgers run, the tight ends need to be a factor in the pass game. The Badgers are counting on them to stay healthy this season. The success of the offense depends on it.