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Wisconsin spring football: tight end position overview

A look at where the Wisconsin Badgers are at tight end following spring football.

The Wisconsin Badgers officially concluded spring camp last Friday night and now head into the summer months preparing for the fall.

While spring football is generally a time for self-improvement and overall development, the 15 extra practices also provide players the opportunity to step up and show the coaching staff that they warrant playing time come fall.

While the Badgers were confined to the McClain Center with ongoing renovations to Camp Randall, the offense was able to lay the foundation with new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram and multiple new position coaches on the staff.

Over the next two weeks, All Badgers will take a position-by-position look at some of the general takeaways from the spring and what it could mean for each position group come fall.

Previously covered positions:

Next up in our rolling spring position recaps, we turn our attention to the tight ends. 

Wisconsin tight end Jack Eschenbach breaks a tackle against Northwestern.

Senior tight end Jack Eschenbach was one of many tight ends unavailable this spring. 

The Badgers entered spring looking to find a reliable group to replace exiting senior tight end Jake Ferguson, who most expect to be picked in the NFL Draft this weekend. 

While it is unlikely that Wisconsin has a singular player that can fill that role, the hope is that a committee approach could replicate some of what Ferguson brought to the offense. 

Unfortunately for the Badgers, injuries derailed the spring for the tight end room. 

After contributing last season, Jack Eschenbach and Clay Cundiff entered the off-season as the most experienced players in the tight end room, but neither player was available this spring as they recover from multiple injuries sustained last year. 

Redshirt sophomore tight end Cam Large also missed the entirety of spring due to an injury, leaving Wisconsin with just over half of the tight ends on the roster able to participate. 

Redshirt senior Jaylan Franklin and redshirt junior Hayden Rucci each earned a lot of time with the first team this spring, and they are both players who could see the field next season. 

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Franklin is a pass-catch threat at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, while Rucci is a more punishing blocker at nearly 260 pounds. As usual I was impressed by Rucci as a blocker this spring, but he also hauled in a couple of passes in the practices I attended, which was a pleasant surprise. I think Rucci is the more likely candidate to play a significant role if and when the duo of Eschenbach and Cundiff return, but Franklin has a ton of upside after shifting to tight end after beginning his career as an outside linebacker. Franklin should at the very least be an asset in special teams, and I think he could be a valuable contributor in the passing game too. 

This spring, the player that stood out the most was redshirt freshman Jack Pugh. The Ohio native caught multiple touchdowns this spring, and during one of the practices I saw, he and Chase Wolf single-handedly led a long scoring drive with multiple completions with the second group. I really liked the way he moved after the catch and flashed some impressive hands, but sadly he also went down with a lower-body injury that would shut his spring down. 

The other young tight end on the roster to show flashes was Cole Dakovich. The Catholic Memorial (Wis.) product demonstrated that he could be a solid blocker at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds. While I also saw him record a few catches, I think he would primarily be used as an inline blocker similar to Rucci if he earns playing time.

Nonetheless, Dakovich made the most of extra opportunities this spring, and I think he proved to the staff that he could have a future at tight end with the Badgers after missing all of last season with a knee injury. 

Fullback Riley Nowakowski also saw time with the tight ends due to the mass injuries at the position, and as I noted in the fullback overview, I think he could give the Badgers something as a hybrid player too. 

Overall, without Eschenbach, Cundiff, and Large available, it is hard to take too much stock in what we saw from the tight ends this spring. All three players are potential playmakers that have seen the field in Madison and will likely be involved in the offense next season. Eschenbach and Cundiff are especially important for the room because they are versatile enough to play both tight end positions. 

I think the steps taken by Jack Pugh before his injury and Cole Dakovich are encouraging, but in general, the health of the group entering fall camp will be critical to monitor. Wisconsin has multiple tight-end positions that they deploy routinely, with more than one player on the field at times. 

If everyone is healthy, I think the depth at tight end is solid. If there are still significant injuries, especially pertaining to the upperclassmen such as Eschenbach, Cundiff, and Rucci, Wisconsin will need to get creative and utilize more three wide-receiver sets.

Hopefully, the tight end room can use the summer to get healthy for fall. 

Projected depth chart:

  1. Jack Eschenbach (RS Senior) and/or Clay Cundiff (RS Junior)
  2. Hayden Rucci (RS Junior) 
  3. Jaylan Franklin (RS Senior)
  4. Cam Large (RS Sophomore)
  5. Jack Pugh (RS Freshman) or Cole Dakovich (RS Sophomore)

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