No. 8 Wisconsin, Fumagalli, leap into offseason on high note
Tight end Troy Fumagalli jumped high in the air, reaching out with two arms above his head to make another highlight-reel catch.
The 6-foot-6 junior had a breakout game at the Cotton Bowl for the eighth-ranked Badgers. Imagine what the offense could look like this fall, with a seasoned Fumagalli giving the quarterback a big target over the middle to complement the next crop of tailbacks churning up the running game.
A successful season ended on a high note with a 24-16 victory over Western Michigan, handing the Broncos their first loss. Wisconsin (11-3) recovered after coughing up a 21-point lead in the Big Ten title game and losing 38-31 to Penn State.
''He's skilled. He runs well enough and has a great knack to separate,'' coach Paul Chryst said about Fumagalli. ''And he's done a really nice job this year of continuing to develop as a blocker. ... It was fun to see.''
The Badgers' three losses this season to Michigan, Ohio State and the Nittany Lions - all Top 10 teams - were by a combined 21 points. The defense set the tone, other than the second-half meltdown against Penn State.
On offense, running back Corey Clement and the offensive line improved throughout the season. Chryst successfully implemented a two-quarterback system in the second half between senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, who figures to take over as the full-time starter next season.
Wisconsin will miss the leadership of senior linebacker Vince Biegel. But with a softer schedule in 2017 following this season's gantlet, along with what should be another tough defense, the Badgers may be in the mix for a trip back to the league championship game.
''I think the two words that come to my mind are perseverance and grit,'' Biegel said about the team's identity. ''What a great way to finish off for the seniors. What a great way to finish off for the rest of the team and carry that momentum as they start offseason training.''
Some other notes and a peek ahead for the Badgers:
WATT TO GO: Linebacker T.J. Watt says he's declaring for the NFL draft. The younger brother of Houston Texans star and former Badger J.J. Watt led the team with 15.5 tackles for loss, including 11.5 sacks. The redshirt junior made the announcement on Twitter, with the school confirming it on Tuesday. He played all 14 games, emerging as a pass-rushing force.
Left tackle Ryan Ramczyk went from Division 3 transfer to AP All-American as the anchor of the offensive line in his first year in Madison. He's also mentioned as a possible early pick on NFL draft boards. Ramczyk has said he might need offseason surgery for a hip injury, a procedure that could affect his draft stock.
STOCKED AT LB: Wisconsin should be stocked at linebacker even with Watt joining Biegel in the draft. Jack Cichy was having an All American-type season when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October. The Badgers lost Chris Orr on the first defensive series of the season against LSU in August. T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly were more than capable replacements, with Edwards leading the team with 89 tackles. A natural inside linebacker, Cichy could move outside if needed next season.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The young line improved as the season wore on, though the front five should benefit from another year of experience next year. A junior, Ramczyk was the Badgers' most experienced linemen in his first year playing at the FBS level. Sophomore Michael Dieter, the line's other anchor, played well in his first full year starting at center.
RUNNING BACK: Clement finished his senior season with 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns, getting over an early ankle injury to become Wisconsin's best breakaway threat. He never approached the high standard that predecessor Melvin Gordon set in the backfield, in part because of inconsistencies on the offensive line and in the passing game. But the Badgers got a promising look at Clement's likely replacement in Bradrick Shaw, who averaged 5.2 yards a carry in his freshman season. Chryst has liked what he's seen in practice from Chris James, a transfer from Pittsburgh who redshirted this season.
SCHEDULE: Wisconsin had a brutal schedule this season, going 3-3 against Top 10 teams, on top of winning tricky road games against Iowa and Northwestern. The toughest road games next season are trips to BYU and Nebraska, with Iowa and Michigan visiting Camp Randall Stadium on back-to-back weekends in November.
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